by John A. Teevan D. Min. Intercultural Studies.
Grace College School of Ministry Studies
When I lived in Ohio in the 1970s, I kept to the church — an island of maturity and purity in a town of small and secular people — I thought. When I came to Indiana in 1990, I shed the island mentality and got involved in town. My interests, and apparently my abilities, led me to being on a series of not-for-profit boards.
In addition to my church and Christian school boards, I have served almost 40 years on our denominational mission board, Encompass World Partners. In town I’ve been on CASA, Habitat for Humanity, Cardinal Center (disabilities), our local hospital and its regional health care network (advisory as it’s a for profit) boards. I’ve also been on a unique board called Gradway that provided networking and innovation to encourage our four county school systems as they work to meet their goal of graduating as many high school students as possible.
I’ve learned a lot about leadership on those boards including search, finance, and budgeting committees, and twice releasing a CEO. I’ve been on the executive committee or served as president (sometimes both!) of many of those boards. I think if I added up all those board seats in years it comes to more than my age. So what have I learned about nonprofit management and leadership from all of these experiences?
First, here are a few patterns I’ve seen in many CEO’s. The CEO is usually competent though the exceptions are numbing. The CEO usually has a persuasive case for getting his/her program through the board. Not all CEOs are receptive to alternative ideas or pushback. Some boards can be sidetracked with the mechanics of fundraising.
Over the years, I have heard a great many ideas offered up, some coupled with strong arguments of support, but many saddled with bad reasoning. Not every error is horrible. I have seen much good reasoning that relates issues, plans, and needs to the mission, purpose, vision, and core values. I’ve seen good strategic buy-in, along with a balanced cost benefit approach. Most boards give sufficient time to consider various plans and options and are willing to take the time to get adequate input.
Here are some dos and don’ts when it comes to serving on a nonprofit board.
Don’t oversimplify your argument. If nonprofit management and leadership was simple, your presence on this board would be unnecessary. Avoid phrases like the following; “The time has come…” “(This) is obsolete…” “As we all know…” “All the studies show…” “Best practices include….” “Among our peers…”
Do provide clear examples to support your idea. Even with complex issues, such as the one your nonprofit board is attempting to solve, there should be distinct steps your organization is ready to take.
Financial non sequiturs
Don’t railroad your peers with claims that don’t logically support the agreed upon goals. Common non sequiturs include; “We have the money on hand.” “The endowment (or specific donor) can cover this expense.” “The new bequest seems timed just perfectly for (this).”
Do the hard work of creating a straight line from where you are to where your organization wants to be. The fact is that every board member is serving because they believe in the cause of the nonprofit. These are people who won’t need to be tricked into support.
It’s a fact of life, every nonprofit board will face trials. How they choose to handle the crisis will greatly determine their future success. Don’t let a crisis become theatrical. Avoid pushing a personal gripe or passion while in crisis mode. Lastly, don’t argue for excessive urgency to settle this today.
In a crisis, do be sure to bring steadiness and calm. Keep regular meeting schedules and put in the hard work to provide solutions, both short-term and long-term.
Belittling as an Argument
Don’t give the impression that those who question or oppose you just don’t get it. Abstain from the idea that they are only being emotional or nostalgic, are not godly, or are behind the times.
Keep in mind that each person has unique strengths they bring to the nonprofit board. Their background and experiences will bring a fuller and richer set of ideas to what you are collectively attempting to solve.
Spiritualizing as a Weapon
Because of the spiritual nature of many nonprofit boards, this bad practice can happen quickly and with great subtlety. You’ll hear it in phrases like the following; “I just read this book or verse/study and think we should….” “I just read this chapter and felt led to….” “I’ve been praying earnestly….” “God wants us to do (this)” “God told me that we should do (this).” “This is directly parallel to David (Moses, Paul), and he did (this).”
While your nonprofit board may indeed look to the truth of scripture to guide its decisions, the best teams will pray and communicate with simplicity and a straightforward understanding of God’s will and their unique call to benefit society. In context, scripture can be a great reminder of your organizational purpose.
Values and Process
As your nonprofit was being created there should have been lengthy meetings to agree upon purpose, values, and the process you would use to accomplish your goals. As time goes on and personal agendas enter, there will be attempts to avoid the process. See if you recognize any of the following; “I ran this by the committee and they approved it.” “This represents a core value.” “I’m the (title).” “You called me, now trust me.”
For long-term success, holding to the original values is a must. If the process needs to be tweaked, do so as a team and in person.
The Master of Nonprofit Management program at Grace College Online will help you learn how to work effectively with a nonprofit board and apply a biblical worldview to your career in nonprofit management. Completely online and affordable, our program will ensure you are equipped to work with board members, manage employees, and care for clients.