Non-profit board members must serve group's needs as well as their own


November 30, 1992|By LESTER A. PICKER

A couple of months ago, I wrote a series of columns o boards of directors, a subject I like to revisit periodically since they are -- or should be -- the source of power and vision for non-profit organizations.

One of the points I made then, and will repeat now because it cannot be said often enough, is that board members must be willing to donate or get money for the organization they represent, or they have no right to occupy a valuable board seat.

Several readers were bothered by the intensity of my pitch for board member financial support. While they agreed in principle with a board member's financial responsibility, they felt that this was sometimes hammered to death by the organizations they represent. They especially felt this was true today, with non-profits facing severe financial pressures.

One reader gave an example of helping with an exhausting fund-raising event. At a board meeting two days later, rather than celebrate the event's significant success, a first for the young agency, the board was told they now needed to focus on the next event. She felt, in her words, "like someone had hit me over the head with a two-by-four."

So goes life in the fast lane.

Non-profit organizations are faced with unprecedented demands for services, government funding is down, and private giving has fallen off for the first time in decades. The financial pinch is very real for charitable groups today. And, that pinch is first felt in the pockets of board members.

Having said that, I also agree with those who believe there has to be more to board service than fund raising. In fact, very few board members I know would say that their prime motivation for joining a board was to simply give money. In countless interactions with boards of directors, I have come to know that members volunteer to serve primarily because they want to make a difference.

The dynamic tension between the needs of board members to make a difference and the needs of the organization for funding, too often plays out like a passive-aggressive relationship in which neither side feels its needs are being met. Reality continually shows us that dissatisfied board members simply cannot -- or will not -- work up to their potential in fund raising.

What a board must do, most especially in today's unrelenting fiscal climate, is assertively address its own needs. It must view itself as a marketing segment, no different than its client base, whose needs and wants have to be considered in order for the organization to operate at maximum efficiency.

As with the development of any marketing plan, a board should start by asking questions. "Why do people serve on our board?" "What do they want from their board service?" "What do they believe will show that they are getting what they need from service on our board?"

Aside from making a difference in addressing a social problem or enhancing arts and culture, board members generally respond to suchquestions by saying that they want to gain additional skills, be exposed to new perspectives, or interact with others of influence in the community. For a particular non-profit organization, they may also have other reasons for serving.

Once these motivations are known, the board can begin designing a program that addresses these needs in a comprehensive manner. For example, skill development can be addressed through workshops, seminars or a mentoring process which each board member is appointed to sequentially more responsible assignments throughout his or her tenure.

Similarly, boards too often neglect the camaraderie that is essential if the mix of a good, diverse board is to gel into one of excellence. Meetings that combine a socializing period prior to business, board and family events, and board-only fund raisers offer meaningful opportunities to interact that provide positive reinforcement for members.

Successful boards have a great degree of satisfaction built into the service experience. Satisfaction certainly requires hard work advance the good works of a non-profit organization. But satisfaction demands attending to the real needs and wants of ** people. There is no rule that states that a board must always be serious or must attend to business every minute. The best boards I know build fun, humor, and socializing into the board calendar. This lays the foundation for the people network that is so critical to building a passionate commitment to the cause.

And, that is the best way to get board members to willingly raise funds for the organization.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md. 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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