How do I get my board to work for my nonprofit?

Let's face it, most nonprofits do not start out with enough resources to hire professional staff, nor do they have enough volunteers to fill key positions.

As the founder or executive director of a nonprofit with a powerful mission to fill, this reality can make it feel as if you need to squeeze water out of a stone.

If you identify with  this feeling, then read on. I have some actionable tips on how to get your board of directors working for your nonprofit. 

It is very common for smaller nonprofits to create what is known as a "working board of directors". A working board is one where board members serve (in part) as unpaid staff for the organization. These members are vital to keeping the nonprofit afloat. Without their hands-on input, it is very tough for the nonprofit to gain traction. 

If your nonprofit is low on resources, then the aim is to create a working board. Members who come on board should be aware that they will be required to roll up their sleeves and do some of the heavy lifting to ensure the nonprofit's sustainability. 

As the founder or executive director, your role is to manage the energy of the working  board and set the course for it to confidently move forward. (Read: your role is not to do everything yourself - a common misconception amongst founders and executive directors which leads to burnout). In setting the tone, here are some key factors to keep in mind.

  • The responsibility must be shared. It's not enough for the bulk of responsibility to fall on one member as this also leads to burnout. 
  • The targets must be achievable. Often, very little happens in the first few years as the nonprofit raises capital and plants the seeds of its mission. However, it's important to keep the targets concrete and achievable so that bigger gains can be achieved over time.
  • The members must be committed. The truth is, running a nonprofit is hard work. A lot must happen behind the scenes in order for the board to make a big impact. Furthermore, the work is unpaid meaning there must be other incentives to keep members engaged. Working boards must be committed to the actions necessary for getting the nonprofit off of the ground (no matter how challenging or tedious).

So how do you create a working board? At the beginning of this message, I promised to provide tips on how to get your board to work for your nonprofit. Here are actions that have proven successful for other small nonprofits:

#1 - Set weekly targets

What does your working board need to complete this week to move the ball forward for your nonprofit?

Do they need to make a phone call?

Post an upcoming fundraiser on their social media pages?

Raise $100?

Recruit 1 volunteer?

Every week, your working board should have a clear idea of the "thing" they need to complete this week. At the end of the week, they should report back on whether or not they have done it. This serves 2 very vital purposes:

First, by setting a weekly target, your members will know the action they need to take in the short-term. There is no "hemming or hawing" on what should be done this month, this quarter or this year. No. They have one week to complete their task.

This leads to the second vital purpose: You measure your members' commitment based on whether or not they are completing their weekly tasks. This serves as a direct feedback mechanism for you to measure the effectiveness of your board (and will allow you to make board changes if necessary).

As the popular phrase goes: "You eat an elephant one bite at a time." What "bite" can your working board take this week?

#2 - Stretch the timeline

Nonprofit founders often report feeling frustrated because they can't create a big impact NOW. I understand. You see a problem that you want to solve. You see the problem getting bigger and bigger. And you don't yet have the resources to solve the problem in a powerful way. In working with nonprofit founders on this issue, I slow them down to speed up. After setting the targets that they would like to reach in a perfect world, we work together on setting minimum targets. These are the targets that are reasonably achievable based on available resources. Usually this means that it takes longer to create a big impact, but it is worth it. This is because nonprofits who grow too fast and do too much tend to burn out on resources (money, volunteers, etc.) Nonprofits who work on steady, measured growth withstand the test of time.

There's an African proverb that really brings home this point: A journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step. What small step can your working board take to reach the nonprofit's minimum targets?

#3 - Focus on fundraising

Your working board will have its hands in a lot of "buckets": administration, operations, marketing and . . . fundraising. 

Over time, your working board should be able to transition towards hiring staff to handle day to day operations. This will make your nonprofit more effective as your board will be able to focus on leading the organization instead of running it.

To keep your working board off the hamster wheel of always having to be a working board, I suggest setting weekly fundraising targets. The target can be small, but it should be something. For example, if your board commits to raising $250 per week for the next quarter, it will raise a healthy $3,000 by the end of this time period. At the end of the year, this amount will total $12,000. Not bad for setting a small weekly financial target!

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A number of small nonprofits have used the exact approaches above and have grown to create a big impact. For example, there is Kids’ Food Basket, a Michigan nonprofit organization that started off with $3,000 and is now a $4.1 million organization that feeds 5,500 children per day. There's also More Than Me Foundation, a New Jersey organization that started off with $50 in its bank account and went on to win $1 million from Chase Bank. More Than Me is now revolutionizing the education system in Liberia, West Africa. 

Stay encouraged, and your nonprofit will find itself amongst the group of small nonprofits who have gone on to complete a powerful mission. 

Believing in all that you and your working board are capable of,