Finding the Perfect Board Fit: You Are Not Alone

November 7, 2011

By Wendy Liscow
Program Officer

What if you could attend a workshop and magically walk away feeling renewed and ready to face the daily challenges of running a nonprofit organization?  What if you suddenly saw your organization’s programs, staffing, financial circumstances and board through a lifecycle lens that made everything you were experiencing come into focus and you no longer felt  alone because you understand that every organization has or will go through a similar process?  You would find the time, right?

Through May, 2012 the Dodge Foundation is offering a Board Leadership Training Series that promises to provide new tools for strengthening your organization by increasing the effectiveness of the board. The series began on October 18th with two foundational basics:

  1. Understanding where your organization is on the nonprofit lifecycle continuum, and
  2. Learning how to rethink assessment practices so that you measure the things you care about most in order to improve the work.

It was a day of paradigm shifts. By the afternoon we could turn off the artificial overhead lighting, because so many proverbial light bulbs had been turned on!

David Grant, former Dodge President and CEO, spent the morning teaching Nonprofit Lifecycle basics as described by Susan Stevens in her book Nonprofit Lifecycles: A Stage-based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity. Her theory underscores that you need a different type of board for each stage of organizational lifecycles. For example, if you run a Start-Up organization and your ideas and programs are expanding rapidly because, you are seizing every opportunity that presents itself; you can expect your board to be very hands on. This board is doing whatever it takes to keep the organization running, even if it means licking envelopes, hosting the bake sale, or cleaning the bathrooms. They are working tirelessly because they believe in the founder and his/her vision.

But there comes a time when your programs grow so much that you need to hire more staff to accomplish your goals. Now you need a different kind of board. You need a board that has a clearer understanding of their governance role, one that can develop a strategic plan and help with the fundraising to implement the plan to navigate through this Growth Stage.  This is when the organization begins looking for board members who can help out with legal, financial, marketing and other specific issues. And it can be stressful when the “jack-of-all trades” faithful founding board members are no longer a match for the organization’s needs.

Or maybe you are on your second or third executive director and programs are well-established. You have a strong staff serving in the right seats on the bus. When you get to this Mature Stage, the danger is that boards can become so complacent and confident that all is going well (the Executive Director would have told them if it wasn’t going well, right?) that they fall asleep at the wheel and go into a Decline stage. If the board isn’t prepared to step up their governance role, and execute a Turnaround an organization can reach the Terminal Stage. Just knowing that this is a common risk factor for this lifecycle stage can be enough to prevent it from happening.

The second half of the training day focused on changing how we think about Assessment, practicing a new way of evaluating our work, and discussing what gets in the way of this important effort. I wish every nonprofit in New Jersey could attend this workshop. Fortunately, we have developed a step-by-step online version of the workshop that can give you a taste of what healthy assessment looks like.

There are seven remaining workshops in the Board Leadership Training Series. After each workshop we will ask the instructor and attendees to share their biggest takeaways. I must confess that I too was feeling so jazzed after David Grant’s Lifecycle and Assessment workshop that I kept asking questions, so the video is a bit long. But I guarantee it is worth the 11 minutes. David shares insight on what he feels are the biggest challenges facing nonprofits today and makes suggestions on how you can use Steven Covey’s concept of Quadrant II (PDF) time to change how you approach your work. He also suggests some other resources that you will definitely want to put on your read list. And if you get to the very end of the video, you find out who David would want to play him in the movie of his life!

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Remember, you are not alone in your journey. We hope you will attend the Dodge Foundation Board Training Series and join a learning community of nonprofit leaders dedicated to doing great work and improving the quality of life in New Jersey. See you there!

UPDATE: When we published this blog post yesterday, we ran into technical issues with David Grant’s video. We believe we have fixed the issue, but in case you still can’t see view it, please click here.