Guest Series: Developing Your Board Leadership

March 31, 2010

Due to the news this week that the Dodge Foundation named Chris Daggett as the new President and CEO, we moved the regularly scheduled blog post for our Monday Board Leadership series to today.

We think that every nonprofit board, large or small, start-up or mature, could benefit from learning from their peers. So over the next several weeks, we will feature board members (and a few executive directors), who recently completed our Board Leadership Training workshops, as Monday guest bloggers. We have asked them to tell their stories of implementing change with their board, including the challenges and successes.

We kicked off the series last week with one of our workshop trainers Allison Trimarco, who gave us some very practical advice and tips on fundraising. Today we hear from workshop participant Matt Finlay, who will build on Allison’s fundraising advice. Matt has been a board member since 2006 for one of our major partners here in our hometown of Morristown, the Community Theatre at the Mayo Center for the Performing Arts.

Therapy for Board Leaders

Matt Finley

Boards of trustees are unwieldy things. They’re generally composed of a self-selecting group of opinionated, Type-A personalities. If the board has done its original job correctly, there’s even a modicum of diversity, so getting all those diverse, outsized egos lined up and pointed in the right direction can be quite a challenge. The phrase which comes to mind is “herding cats,” although that doesn’t quite do it. Cats are too languorous. Organizing a board of trustees is more like herding cats on crack.

Unfortunately, boards of trustees often have work to do. Depending on the size of the institution, there may be more or less staff to help with the grunt work, but there is one task which is common to all nonprofit boards: fundraising.

Which brings up the second major problem. Serving on the board of trustees of a prominent nonprofit is often considered highly desirable. It comes with recognition, and free tickets, and consorting with the mayor, and all sorts of other strange and wonderful perks. But there’s a dirty little secret known to most of those on the inside: fundraising stinks. It’s not very fun. The most significant task of a board of trustees just turns out to be unpleasant.

Now, I’m not talking about the partying kind of fundraising. Parties are fun. Especially those which include a cocktail hour. Most board members are quite happy to participate in this type of fundraising. Unfortunately, parties raise only a small portion of the funds which non-profits need for their day-to-day operations. No, the fundraising I am talking about is the kind which requires personal solicitations of large amounts of money from either friends or acquaintances, often with a significant chance of outright rejection. It’s an awkward business at best; at worst, it’s downright atrocious.

I vaguely knew these things when I was approached several years ago to co-chair the new $7 million capital campaign at the Morristown Community Theatre. At first I hesitated. But such a task fits with my personal philosophies about giving back to a community, so I whisked my concerns aside and committed.

Mayo Center

I vowed to combat these fundraising roadblocks with the same things that I’d used to great success in business: organization, diligence and tenacity. I’d make the Theatre’s board into a fundraising juggernaut by simply giving them no options. I’d bend their will to fit my needs by organizing meetings, doling out responsibilities, and pestering for action.

It worked. Sort of. For a while. But not really. Then, it wasn’t working at all. Then, I almost became a parody of myself. I found myself in board meetings repeating the same things over and over again. Essentially, it boiled down to please: “Please help us…”; “Please contact those people on your list…”; “Please follow through with your commitments…” “We’re gonna do it this time! Come on, please?” I began to exhibit symptoms of Einstein’s famous definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome.

A faithful band of trustees labored on, but I became increasingly disheartened about the process. CEOs often talk about how lonely it is at the top, and while I would never compare my experiences with those of someone running an entire company, I knew what they meant.

Thankfully, I got some perspective from the Dodge Foundation. Thanks to an invitation forwarded by our Executive Director Allison Larena, I was able to attend a Dodge workshop entitled “The Care and Feeding of a Board of Trustees.”

It turns out that my experience was not all that unusual. In fact, according to the Dodge consultants, it’s pretty standard stuff. After a day of Dodge-led therapy, my mood was picking up. Better yet, I had some new ideas about how to manage the board and its capital goals. None of it was terribly profound or earth-shattering, but even the little things can sometimes make a world of difference.

Here are a couple of helpful things which were reinforced in the workshop:

  1. From Each According to His Ability (or Desire): The Dodge Foundation didn’t actually make this point using Marx’s famous dictum, but the applicability is almost perfect. Essentially, it means that a board leader ought to extract from each board member only those things which can be reasonably expected to be forthcoming. If a board member says something like “I don’t really like to make fundraising calls…,” then by all means don’t press it. This person will probably not make any calls for you anyway. Insisting will only make the situation uncomfortable. A well constructed board (or committee) will have lots of different jobs filled by lots of different individuals with lots of different skills. Use only those people who will benefit the particular job at hand.
  2. Make It As Brainless As Possible: Complexity is anathema to fundraising. Judging from my own personal experience, even something as simple as a missing telephone number is enough to get someone to indefinitely postpone a planned fundraising call. Any serious work or research or preparation is likely to impede the beginning of a fundraising pitch. So take that aspect of the process away from board members. Make the process absolutely brainless and bullet-proof. If you’d like a board member to send a letter to a prospect, then write it for them, hand it to them, watch them read it, have them sign it, and then send it along. Similarly with telephone calls or tours, make sure 100% of the relevant information on a potential donor is at hand before the process even begins. Of course a large staff helps, but even board subcommittees can do the groundwork to make board fundraising brainless. Strangely, if it’s brainless, it can even become fun.
  3. Keep It Fun: Have pizza. Gossip. Play music. Go out to Happy Hour. Make your fundraising activities the place to be. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

We’re almost finished with our capital campaign, so I think it’s safe now to pass judgment on the process. In the end, I made the right choice to volunteer for the campaign. I met a great group of people, I helped the community achieve a new level of sophistication in its performing arts capacity, and, perhaps most important, I had a lot of fun.

Thanks go to Allison Larena and her staff at the Theatre, to all of my fellow Trustees who helped with the campaign, and to all the patrons of the Theatre who helped us achieve our goal. Finally, many thanks to the Dodge Foundation for being an informed and consistent resource for nonprofits.

Matthew Finlay manages a private equity fund in Morristown and lives with his wife and three boys in Far Hills.  He has managed several operating and capital campaigns for schools, community enterprises and arts organizations.

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