Small Non-Profit Boards Have Bigger Challenges

By Jeri Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International

A common frustration I’m hearing from small non-profit Boards is how to get their Members more engaged. This is especially critical when the non-profit has a small board and no paid staff. The board then becomes the hands-on staff.

How do you get members to show up for board meetings? Even when the meetings are virtual instead of face-to-face, an insufficient number are present, making a quorum difficult. That means the organization can’t get business done.

Is it a sign of the times? Are people just not willing to commit? If you agree to sit on a board, you are usually obligated to show up for a minimum number of meetings during the year as stated in the Bylaws. It is the duty of the board Chair to hold all board members accountable to this. With today’s technology, many organizations have shifted to virtual meetings and decisions via email. Travel, personal and work conflicts have made this an essential practice. So with this kind of flexibility, you would think that board members could make the commitment to show up, even if all they do is call in. However, it is still important for the board member to be mentally present and not distracted by whatever environment they are in.

Most people make a commitment, put the time and day on their calendar and make if part of their day. There are times when one can’t make the meeting due to business or personal conflicts, but for the most part, if it’s on the calendar, then the commitment should be met.

Is it a Generational Issue?

Generation X Breakfast Club
The Breakfast Club Watercolor | DJayK on Society6

I’m finding that younger generations are either less organized or less willing to make the commitment their older, Baby Boomer counterparts do. Boomers grew up volunteering. It’s in their nature, thanks to parents who included them on the many volunteer commitments they had. Maybe it truly is a generation issue and those in their 30s and 40s (the Gen Xers) don’t have that same sense of commitment. Could this be true? After all, this is the generation that grew up as highly educated latchkey kids, in single parent households, and learned to be very independent. As they matured, married and are raising their own families, they’ve become the helicopter parents, overly devoted to family and a strong work-life balance. (read this blog for a deeper understanding about Gen-Xers). This generation is also one with a strong entrepreneurial bent – they grew up unable to get jobs out of college, and so they created their own (founders of Google, Amazon, Twitter).

Curiously, this generation had the highest volunteerism rate (29.2 percent in 2010), despite their heavy workloads and family commitments. One of the areas that garners their attention is education, largely due to many having school-age children at home. Millennials, those born after Gen X and in their late teens and early 30s now, will become the largest members of the workforce. These are the future managers, the technology kids who prefer mobile communication, communication apps, and collaboration tools, provided they increase productivity and communication. With a volunteer rate of 21 percent, their focus is also directed towards education and youth activities.

Perhaps it’s Not in the Corporate Culture

Another issue may be related toward employer attitudes toward volunteerism. Some companies and managers just don’t support it. It’s not within the corporate culture. For many small businesses, it’s difficult to support other than in traditional ways such as United Way fundraisers or donating products to an event. According to an article in the Ivey Business Journal, only 20 percent of small businesses support employee volunteerism vs. 52 percent for all companies in the US. While there are many benefits to supporting employee volunteerism, there are also costs, which impact small businesses more than large. This may be one reason non-profits find it challenging to attract the right diversity of board members and keep them engaged, especially if it’s not a priority at work.

Board Turnover Means Low Engagement

Turnover on the board is another issue. Just as the organization is trying to get everything organized, several board members leave. That means starting from scratch again to build the board. When you have a large board, it’s less of an issue; but for small boards, this can be devastating. Keeping members engaged and excited about the organization’s mission and purpose, and making sure each understands how they can contribute to further those become critical to reducing board turnover.

Getting the right people on the board who are willing to commit for at least one year, to recruit their replacement, and also do the hands-on work needed, is critical for smaller organizations. It’s easy to try to just fill seats, but if you can’t get people to show up, it becomes frustrating and more work for those who do. The organization just can’t move forward.

Here are 7 tips for ensuring you get the right people on board and getting organized:

  1. Identify the skill sets you need. Before you ask someone to join the board, carefully evaluate what skills you need. At minimum, an organization needs someone skilled at finances and accounting (treasurer position), a marketing person, an organized leader (perhaps to take the role of president or vice president), and someone skilled at digital marketing to handle email communications, website updates, and social media promotion. A fund raiser who is skilled at asking for donations and managing grant writers. A Board Secretary to document the activities and decisions made by the board.
  2. Look for a cross section of ages, talents, and experience. You want people on the board who span the ages from late 20s to 70s. This way you get the different generational perspectives. You also want people with differing levels of experience and talents so you can match the needs to their skill sets, interests and professions.
  3. Ask board members to choose the areas they want to support. Not everyone is good with numbers or comfortable updating websites. Make sure each board member has the opportunity to contribute according to their preferred skillsets. You will get better engagement because they will be doing what they like, not just what needs to be done.
  4. Interview candidates beforehand. Have two people interview prospective candidates and write up reports on the results. This gives you two perspectives when presenting the candidates to the rest of the board. Have a frank discussion at a board meeting about the candidates before you invite them to join the board. Make sure you have consensus first so when they do show up for the formal board meeting and induction, it’s mostly a formality. You will have done your homework ahead of time.
  5. Follow the Bylaws. Keep the Bylaws updated, and make sure everyone understands their contents. When members don’t show up for the minimum number of required meetings as stated in the Bylaws, invite them to leave the board. This is becoming more and more critical with increased oversight of non-profits by US Federal regulators.
  6. Establish an Executive Committee. Even if your board is small (fewer than 9 people), you can set up an Executive Committee, perhaps 3-4 people. This committee acts on behalf of the board and enables the organization to get business done and move the organization forward even when a quorum is not present. Your Bylaws will dictate the extent of authority this committee has. It’s essential in order to do business – especially if your board meetings are not satisfying quorum requirements.
  7. Create a calendar of regular board meetings one year in advance. By doing this, there’s no excuse about not knowing about the board meeting. Schedule the board meetings and get them on a calendar that is shared with everyone. They don’t need to be monthly; they just need to be on the calendar and communicated to all.

Hopefully, these will provide smaller organizations some structure to follow to help them build their boards more successfully and grow their organizations.

Volunteer Burn-Out is a Non-Profit Dilemma

Takeaways: 1) Age demographics and volunteer burn-out are dilemmas for member-based non-profit organizations, 2) Why clear and concise communication is paramount, 3) Why change must be embraced with a revolutionary approach.

Member-based non-profits inherently are subject to the dreaded disease of volunteer burn-out. As I scan the world for member-based non-profits and consider their membership age demographics, two things are crystal clear.

First, the most obvious one is a seriously older demographic, from the few members left of those who were adults in the mid 1900’s to the huge population of baby-boomers worldwide.

Second,  very few of those organizations are working really hard at recruiting and engaging new members of ages 25 to 45. Those that are, struggle to connect across the generational chasm that has generally tripped up humanity for centuries.This has deepened in the last 170 years with the rapid cultural changes brought on by technological advancements.

Balancing planning with action is a common struggle for non-profits, and if they are membership-based, perhaps even more so. This may be more evident among organizations that are 30 years or older, but it also affects those that are newer and have instituted some mature processes and structures.

I am looking at two very worthy member based non-profits. One is experiencing continued success but mild growth in membership. All of its programs are very well received by the communities it serves and its members are overwhelmingly deeply engaged. The other is experiencing membership decline, slow action among its leadership, a lot of activity in planning for the short and long term, and is struggling with its value proposition and member engagement. The first one is over one hundred years old, the other a respectable 15 years young.

A common thread I find in successful organizational development continues to be that of clear and concise communication. Communication of vision, values and goals in a timely and simple manner continue to be the key ingredients to successful member engagement. Why? Because it provides key support and direction to the leaders of the local groups to keep everyone moving toward the same overarching goals.

I see a number of aspects to what I call The Maturity Dilemma. One is that mature member-based organizations generally have a long-established way of doing things that worked for their generation of members. This creates a culture that is comfortable for that age group but likely misses the mark with other age groups. Another aspect is human nature’s normal resistance to change. Throughout our lives we have been taught to seek long-term conformity and stability, in spite of things changing around us all the time. We are not taught to thrive in change and therefore continue to hold this aversion to it. We have not developed the skill sets to thrive in change. So the organizations we lead tend to suffer from the same shortcoming.

Like all systems in the world, yet another aspect to this Maturity Dilemma is entropy. Our member-based non-profits are becoming so comfortable in our “way of doing things” that we simply never respond to the changes taking place OUTSIDE our organization.

I propose that like nearly all for-profit organizations, we must stay more in tune with our “markets” and our external environment. We must establish the processes and structures that will embrace change and help us thrive. We must, in a word, become “revolutionary” from within.

What does that really look like? To me it looks like making change happen fast, like in most revolutions. It looks like planning quickly, acting decisively and being prepared to adjust quickly to the changes we are creating. It looks like we must rapidly evaluate how to leverage the positive results of the changes we make and just as rapidly mitigate the negative results of those changes. It looks like we must not fear failure but instead react quickly to correct it.

I am not suggesting this is easy. In fact it is counter-intuitive to human nature and how we have been taught. We have to be, as author James B. Swartz so eloquently put it, “Seeing David in the Stone”, a reference to the courage displayed by those who pursued a vision without a manual to show them the way. We have many, many tools at our disposal to start us on our way. Planning strategically or tactically is key among them, but balancing that planning with rapid, decisive action is what will win the day. Forcing ourselves to maintain that balance will also drive us to communicate those plans in a timely and concise manner, thereby short-circuiting the entropy that creeps up on our organizations in uncanny mimicry of Alzheimer’s Disease.

If you would like to discuss this topic further, please contact me. My expertise in accelerated change management and deep knowledge of non-profit organizations may be helpful to you!