Wanna Get Business Leaders to Serve on Your Board and Sit through Meetings?

board development Feb 23, 2021

Many nonprofits have difficulty attracting business leaders to serve on their boards. When they are successful, they often lose those leaders within the first year. Ever wonder why?

If you want these individuals to serve, you have to know what will make them comfortable and interested as well as what will make them run for the nearest door.

Coming from a business background myself, I’ve been in positions on boards where I rapidly lost interest in serving for several reasons.

  • I got frustrated with “nonprofit-speak” and meetings that wasted my time.
  • I was pigeonholed.
  • My talents were not being used.

Nonprofit-speak Versus Business-speak

I recall serving on one board where every board meeting was chock-full of acronyms that were meaningless to me, and to top it off, the meetings started at 7 p.m. and lasted three to four hours. These endless hours were spent listening to reports that could have been sent in advance of the meeting. After a long workday, I grew pretty weary of that board.

Sometimes a Square Peg Does Fit into a Round Hole

When recruiting new board members, it is critical to meet with each prospective board member and find out what each of them is really looking for in serving on your board. Don’t automatically assume that just because the person is a CPA, that the finance committee is the obvious place to put this new board member. I spent eleven years in the banking profession, and every time I was asked to serve on a board, I was placed on the finance committee. Guess what, though? I worked in the marketing department of the bank and was not really a “numbers person,” even though one of my majors was banking and finance. Even if you do have a “finance person” as a prospective board member, a person who crunches numbers all day might just be looking for a creative outlet in board service, or at least something that isn’t part of the person’s day-to-day work.

A perfect example is friend of mine who is an architect. Like me, he was invited to serve on many boards and was always pigeonholed—in his case, into the facilities committee. While I was serving in a staff position at a museum, I was fortunate enough to have a lot of input into building the museum’s board. I suggested my architect friend and was asked by the board to feel him out for his interest in serving. I had lunch with my friend one day and broached the subject. His answer was not surprising to me, although it wasn’t what my board expected. “Linda, I would love to serve on the museum board, but only on one condition—that I am not placed on the facilities committee.” Like me, he had been forced into that slot too many times. After a few more probing questions on my part, I found that he had studied art at the museum while he was in elementary school, and that experience launched his career in architecture. “I would really love to serve on the collections management committee, so if I can serve in that position, I will gladly join the board.” And he did. He was instrumental in assuring that the museum developed an accession and de-accession policy and, by the way, also gave a lot of pro bono architectural services to the museum.

Lesson Learned: Have a strategic plan, know what skills you require to achieve the plan, and recruit people with those skills. Ask board members how much time they can devote to your organization, ask them what skills and interests they have that they think will benefit your organization, then allow people to pursue their interests and use those skills.

Practical Tip: Often a board retreat is a good time to have board members spend some time talking about the skills, talents, and interests each one is willing to contribute to the organization's success.

More Board Members Resign for Lack of Meaningful Work than from Being Over-worked!

Lots of times we are afraid to ask our board members to do too much because we’re afraid they will be scared off. I have long felt that what really turns them off is a lack of meaningful work.

I served on one board that didn’t have strong committees; all the “real work” seemed to be handled by the executive committee, of which I was not a part. Meetings did not have any meat to them, decisions had already been made, and there just didn’t seem to be anything critical for discussion. I frankly got bored and quickly moved on to another board where I felt all the board members were essential to the organization’s success and there was meaningful discussion at board meetings about the vision and future of the organization. In addition, committee work was challenging but fun!

Lesson Learned: Make sure all board members are engaged, see the big picture, and have specific responsibilities that clearly fit into the big picture for which they’ll be held accountable.

If you want to learn more about building a great board, and keeping them, take my course, Build a Great Board, Sign up here

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