Motivate Nonprofit Board Members to Play 'Follow the Leader'
The absolute most important game a board member must play is “follow the leader.”
Part of the unique job board members have is being role models. Should you have any doubt about this, pay attention to what follows.
A growing body of research shows that human beings are, first and foremost, social creatures. We use the brains of others to think for us, and as storage space for our knowledge about the world.
For folks considering whether and how to get involved with any nonprofit, what leadership is saying—and, especially, what it’s doing—will have a big impact.
People will look first to the board for guidance.
Ignore this at your peril. It’s human nature to look to what others around us are doing.
If you ask me for a major gift, but you’re giving only a token one, why should I do more than you? Why aren’t you putting your money where your mouth is? I don’t want to be a patsy. I don’t want to carry the weight of the organization on my shoulders. That’s your job as a board leader. The fact that you and other board members aren’t stepping up to the plate makes me suspicious.
True story: I once worked for an organization with a great connection to a $50,000 major gift prospect. One of our board members asked for the gift. The prospect’s first question was, “What are some of my peers on your board giving?” The asker had to reveal that no one on the board gave more than $10,000. The prospect said flat out, “Then I won’t give more than that either.” It was a real wake-up call for the board.
People develop and learn about the world through the filter of other people.
Board members are the filter through which others in your community will view you. The New York Times columnist David Brooks, author of “The Social Animal,” notes that we are not separate individuals, but “emerge out of relationships,” and are deeply formed and shaped by them.
“People learn from people they love,” Brooks writes.
People tend not to think for themselves—they follow the lead of others whom they respect and admire.
If you really want to change things in the world, you need to understand how the people who live in it behave.
It was Aristotle who first described humans as “social animals,” and indeed the field of evolutionary anthropology has borne out his observation from 350 B.C. According to the authors of “I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behavior,” we are a “we” species, not a “me” species.
We are products of a herd mentality.
The positive thing about being social animals is that we’re hardwired to coalesce in groups. Groups that care for their members. Groups that work together to assure their survival.
In fact, Darwin talked of survival of the most empathetic when speaking of communities. (“Survival of the fittest,” while attributed to Darwin, is really something Herbert Spencer developed and made popular. Darwin posited that the fittest societies were those that took care of their neighbors).
Today, modern psychology and neuroscience reveal that the human species has just as much of a capacity for empathy and altruism as it does for selfishness and greed. Frans deWaal wrote of this in “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society,” and significant work by the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, Calif., led by Dacher Keltner, also supports this notion. Keltner says humans are hardwired for empathy:
“Born to be good,” for me, means that our mammalian and hominid evolution have crafted a species—us—with remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution: survival, gene replication and smooth-functioning groups.
We are attuned to each other’s emotional needs. We want to help one another. Work in the field of developmental psychology reveals we possess a neural capacity for empathy that guides us from the day we are born. As babies, we cry at the sound of another baby crying.
Other donors are the ‘beta’ to the boards’ ‘alpha.’
As much as we’re wired to help each other, we also have a tendency to pay tribute to the alpha male (or female) within the group. We second guess ourselves, and look for guidance, power, strength, authority or leadership. If you will, the board represents the alpha males/females in your group/organization/community.
Simply put, what the board does—how it helps—matters.
It matters a lot. Foundations and businesses will ask what the board is doing before they commit. Potential individual donors will decide how much to give based on the size of gifts the board has committed. New board members will decide whether they can abstain from fundraising based on the level of involvement they see from existing board members.
People naturally want to follow the leader.
Without a board that leads by example, it will be extremely difficult for any social-benefit organization to survive and thrive. You see, it’s not what we say that really matters. It’s what we do.
People won’t magically fall in line behind us just because we have a good case for support. Lots of organizations have a good case for support. But not all of them have boards who “walk the talk” and inspire others to walk alongside them.
People will line up behind a leader way before they’ll step up to the line on their own.
Influencers have tremendous power and clout. Take a look at the work of folks like:
- Malcolm Gladwell in “The Tipping Point“
- Duncan Watts in a series of publications on social networks
- Nicholas Christakis in “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives“
- Stanley Milgram, who developed the notion of “six degrees of separation” (though he did not use that phrase himself)
Their research teaches us that networks matter, and that some folks within networks are more influential than others.
You need to bring positive influencers onto your board.
In searching for your leaders, look for folks with large networks who you’re sure will be willing to use their influence on your behalf. These people will serve as role models for their followers. When they praise your organization’s work to high heaven, their family, friends and colleagues will listen. They’ll be predisposed to join in.
Remember, we’re products of herd mentality. We want to fit in. We like to be part of the “in the know” crowd.
Recruit the right people, and provide the support they need to use their leadership on your behalf. This is the most important role board members can play for your organization. Helping them do that is one of your most important jobs.
Watch for my next article to learn how easy it can be to do your job by simply inspiring your board members to lead from their own passion.
Do you have a good way to help your board members step up to their role as influencers?