An Unexpected Shift From First Steps to Breakthrough
Joanna (not her real name), the executive director of a multimillion-dollar organization focusing on food insecurity, reached out because she needed help with her board. In most areas, the organization was doing well: Since Joanna had taken over as executive director a year and a-half earlier, the work of the organization had expanded to serve many more clients. While the previous executive director had been content to serve a limited number of clients, Joanna saw the need in the community and found government funding and other funding sources to almost double the number of clients served.
Despite the organization’s growth, board involvement had stayed flat. Among a number of issues, some board members were resistant to fundraising. Joanna was interested in engaging a consultant to deepen board engagement. This included kicking off the process with a board retreat and follow up work over the next six months to solidify the board’s ownership over governance and fundraising.
We described our process of conducting a board assessment survey, interviews with board members, convening a design team of board members and staff to provide feedback on retreat design, and facilitation of a retreat that would give the board a concrete plan over the next year. After the retreat, we’d support Joanna and the board recruit new members, train them in fundraising methods and observe board meetings to ensure that meetings were structured to take advantage of board members’ talents and energy. Joanna felt that this would be a great process for their group, and we began work.
Interviews with board members clarified why the board was stuck. Some challenges came from the change in organizational leadership, which shifted expectations for board members. The previous executive director had told board members, most of whom were still on the board, that they didn’t need to fundraise. Some current board members were caught off guard that the expectations had changed so drastically. Additionally, board members didn’t understand their role clearly.
Board members stepped up significantly at the retreat. After reflecting on best practices for the board, they knew what they needed to do. They created a plan for themselves that would address their duties of organizational oversight, community outreach and fundraising.
We continued our work after the retreat. We held training on fundraising methods with Joanna and the board members so that everyone felt comfortable making connections between the organization’s mission, expanded community needs and concrete fundraising targets. We advised the organization through recruiting energetic new members who brought fresh ideas and energy. We reviewed meeting agendas and behaviors, and then gave Joanna suggestions on restructuring meetings to be more interactive and take advantage of board members’ role as strategic thinkers.
Lastly, we coached Joanna to step back a bit in order to give board members more room to step forward. When we first met Joanna, she was so knowledgeable about every aspect of the organization’s work that board members deferred to her. This was a balancing act that took time and recalibration.
At the end of the six-month engagement, the organization was in a significantly better place. They now have a board with the capacity and commitment to lead the organization into an exciting future.
- Consider: To what degree is your board stepping up to support all of the good work happening in your organization? What do you need from the board?
- If there are gaps, what support does your board need to fulfill their role better?
- What’s a first step toward deepening board engagement?
Dr. Renee Rubin Ross, founder of The Ross Collective, is a nationally recognized leader on board and organizational development and strategy. Committed to racial equity in the nonprofit sector, Dr. Ross supports organizations and individuals in practices that celebrate and amplify diverse voices and perspectives.