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Board or Superboard: The engaged board member difference at Moving in the Spirit

At GCN’s annual Board Leadership Clinic, two leaders at member nonprofit Moving in the Spirit, a youth development organization that uses dance to transform kids into leaders, brought a room of executive directors and board members to their feet while teaching them how to achieve an engaged, active board—and what’s possible when you do.

We all know a functioning board is essential to a nonprofit’s success, yet many organizations struggle with how to engage this well-meaning group of volunteers.

At Moving in the Spirit, we experienced this challenge. That’s because time wasn’t being made to get to know board members, to challenge them, to check in with them, and more importantly, to celebrate them.

A board engagement process, like the one we have used for five years, goes beyond improving metrics like participation and finances (though that’s a vital part!): It’s made the overall board experience a joy. We genuinely look forward to board meetings, and we’ve got a development committee putting “fun” back in fundraising. Instead of “So who has to go to this event?”, we hear, “Oh, I want to go to that one!” and “I’ll drive!”

In short, our board members are having a blast while furthering our mission.

If you want a vibrant, healthy organization, you need an engaged board, and the only way to get an engaged board is by investing in them. For us, that means focusing on three things: the relationship, the expectations, and the assessment.

The Relationship

As an executive director, you must know every one of your board members on a personal basis. Their phone numbers should be in your cell phone. You should know what’s going on in their lives, the motives driving them to volunteer for your organization, and the circumstances affecting their volunteer work. And that’s just the start: as you continue to work together your relationship will grow, benefitting everyone involved. After all, relationships are what we’re living for, and a board member with a personal bond to the organization is someone who will go the distance for it.

In short, our board members are having a blast while furthering our mission.

We start working on the relationship from the very beginning with a deliberate vetting process that can take up to 18 months. When someone is recommended by our team, the first step is a lunch with the ED, to start getting to know the candidate and her interests; if the intersection between her story and the organi­zation’s seems strong, then we’ll invite the candidate to tour our theater, attend an event, and sit in on a class for an on-the-ground sense of what we do. Then she’ll meet with our board chair, and only after that—when we’ve both invested a pretty good amount of time, not knowing if the invitation will be extended (or accepted)—is the candidate invited to submit a letter of intent and presented to the board.

The letter of intent tells us what a prospective board member thinks she has to give, and what she hopes to gain in return. That’s the beginning of the Leadership Plan—our tool for cementing everyone’s expectations, and making sure we have goals to work toward, discuss, and celebrate throughout the year.

The Expectations

Our board has always been an incredibly intelligent, talented, loving, and hard-work­ing group, but they didn’t always have the structure—the specific roadmap—they needed to be a successful, high-perform­ing board. That’s why we introduced the Leadership Plan, which came directly from our work with teens. Our Outreach Direc­tor, Dr. Charné Fucron-Mack, noticed that the students in our program, like our board members, had a strong desire to grow as leaders but needed a path to do so. The solution we designed is a joint process for developing a written development plan, promoting self-evaluation and self-moti­vated change. We quickly realized it was exactly the mechanism we needed to get our board firing on all cylinders.

The idea behind the Leadership Plan is to make sure all expectations are laid out and agreed upon before a board member begins her tenure. Otherwise, you’re set­ting yourself up for disappointment. It’s not enough for a board member to say, “I want to be a champion for the Men in Motion program.” In my mind, that might mean she comes to every Men in Motion perfor­mance, that she brings friends and kids to explore the possibility of participating, that she’s promoting it to her networks; while in her mind, it might mean scoring a $10,000 donation. Both those expectations are equally exciting; they just miss each other.

The Leadership Plan is a way to align our expectations in order to create a spectacular experience for everyone. It’s comprised of a set of goals related to our strategic plan, with a concrete plan to achieve those goals—one that includes specific action steps, a timetable, and a way to measure progress.

We work collaboratively on developing the Leadership Plan, with an open, honest conversation about that board member’s interests, strengths, and capacity. In that conversation, you might discover a board member wants to try a project contrary to what they do professionally. We’ve had finance folks who serve on the develop­ment committee finding greater satis­faction hosting a fundraising dinner than doing the audit review.

The Leadership Plan is a way to align our expectations in order to create a spectacular experience for everyone.

We also discuss the kind of support that board member will need from the or­ganization, including staff involvement; at Moving in the Spirit, we assign each board member a staff person whose job it is to support the board member in achieving her goals. Staff members are also encouraged to develop their own personal relationships with the board.

The result is a framework that everyone can refer back to throughout the year, and which serves as the basis of each mid-year and year-end assessment.

1. Discuss interests and strengths.

2. Looking at where interests and strengths align, develop a set of goals for the year. These goals should all follow the SMART rubric: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time bound.

3. Create at least one action step for every goal. These should be practical, and as specific as possible.

4. Decide on a timetable for achieving each goal.

5. Come up with an evaluation method for each goal—that is, how you will measure what’s been accomplished.

6. It’s also helpful for everyone to discuss the kinds of support your board member will need to fulfill their goals, including technical considerations and personnel to involve.

The Assessment

We make a point to monitor each board member’s progress throughout the year: at board meetings, over the phone, through our calendars (which are all linked), and through our volunteer coordinator. We track hours, we stay abreast, we celebrate steps taken, and we always make a point to give “Sunshine,” an act of affirmation we use with our students and faculty as well, in which team members pair up to express appreciation for another’s work, support, and dedication, without being afraid to get specific and personal. In fact, we set aside time at each board meeting for everyone to give Sunshine to each other.

Honest and direct feedback, however, is absolutely critical to engaging board members. As nonprofit leaders, we can sometimes shy away from critiquing board members because we know they’re busy professionals, volunteering highly valuable time and expertise. That’s something we need to get over. To help, we make the mid-year assessment more of a celebra­tion than an evaluation: a time for us to thank each board member for the gifts they’ve contributed, to check in, and to discuss the work before us.

If we’ve invested time in the relation­ship, then we should know about any successes or issues by the time we get to the mid-year check-in, and certainly by the end-of-year assessment. If there are issues, we talk them over and revise the Leadership Plan by asking some simple questions: Was this goal realistic? Is the plan too involved, given what’s going on in the board member’s life?

The point is to make the assessment a conversation—an extension of the relation­ship—but also to give everyone a struc­tured way to measure progress. During the assessment, both the ED and the board member rate the board member’s perfor­mance on each strategic goal using a scale of one to 10: How I think she did, and how she thinks she did. Then we’ll discuss any differences and what, for example, could have made a seven into a 10—which could be as broad as, “I missed a few meetings,” or as specific as, “I wanted to exceed my fundraising target.” And at the end of each year, we decide which ongoing goals we want to continue, and consider new goals rooted in the strategic plan.

More importantly, and more frequently, the assessment is helpful in reminding board members of their contributions. Sometimes board members rate them­selves harshly, but when we look back on what they have done, more often than not they exceed expectations.

Everything is documented and passed on to our board chair so she is fully in­formed about the challenges and accom­plishments of her team.

The Engaged Board Difference

Board members are a powerful resource: they propel everything your nonprofit does. It’s the responsibility of every ED to make sure her board functions well. If the only time you interact with them, or they inter­act with each other, is at your bimonthly board meetings, you’ve got to rethink your role as a partner in leadership. You’ve got to find the time to understand each board member as an individual, with her own life, priorities, and goals. And you’ve got to encourage board members to be just as familiar with each other.

We make the mid-year assessment more of a celebra­tion than an evaluation: a time for us to thank each board member and to discuss the work before us.

If it sounds like a lot, it is. If it feels overwhelming, it should. But it’s worth it. One good place to start: at Moving in the Spirit, we schedule social time before each board meeting (not after!) for members to chat with each other, our staff, and the young people we serve. Keep in mind: Re­lationships are fundamental. Everything—the Leadership Plan, the evaluation, and the important work your board does—is an extension of the bond you build.

Work to make your board more active, accountable, and passionate about their work, and they’ll push your organization to fulfill every bit of its promise—then thank you for the opportunity to be a part of it.

Dana Lupton is co-founder, executive director, and artistic director at Moving in the Spirit, as well as a performer and teacher of dance.

Heather Infantry is development director and major gifts officer at Moving in the Spirit, and serves on the board of Whitefoord, Inc.

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