Board Initiative: What’s the Balance?

on in Fundraising

My board leans on me for everything” – an oft-heard lament from executive directors.

It’s logical. Board members, knowing the competence of the executive director, simply assume that dynamic leader will let them know when they’re needed. It’s easier to follow their lead.

But executive directors, juggling a million balls in the air, resent that they’re expected to be in charge of the actions of yet another group of responsible adults.

Yet the opposite complaint is true as well: Beware the runaway decisions made by a board acting on its own without any staff members in the room…


What’s the right balance?

We want board members who take initiative, who think about the needs of the organization in a proactive way, not always waiting for staff to direct them.

But we don’t want board members taking action, say in cash flow management or fundraising appeals, without consulting staff who often have a fuller picture of all the factors at play that might lead to the potential success (or negative consequences) of that action.

For example, staff may know the last time a funder was approached for a cash flow loan, or a major donor’s reaction when asked for a challenge grant – two pieces of history that might well be relevant today.

It’s a delicate situation – supporting board members to take the lead while guiding them with a realistic portrait of the organization’s opportunities and threats. As staff, you don’t want to appear to be a constant naysayer: “That won’t work, we tried it before.” But you also don’t want board members setting off down a rabbit hole that might actually harm your organization’s reputation.

If staff are in the same room as board members during a board or committee meeting, staff has to figure out when to remain silent so that the dialogue is truly board-driven – and when to speak up to steer that conversation in a productive manner.

The watchword? Infrequent yet powerful. Staff’s voice should be muted during board-to-board dialogue – which makes it that much more influential when they enter the fray.

If staff is just “one of the guys” during a free-for-all discussion – their opinion doesn’t carry more weight. But if staff lets the board carry the conversation and lead the exploration of various options, then when staff does speak up – people will listen.

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