Guest Series: Developing Your Board Leadership

April 19, 2010

If you’ve been following along the last several Mondays, you know that we’ve been hearing from grantees who have recently taken part in our Board Leadership Training Series workshops and are now telling their stories  about how they are applying what they’ve learned to their organizations. Allison Trimarco of Creative Capacity kicked off the series with some really helpful and humorous advice about fundraising. We also heard about fundraising from Matt Finlay. Ruth Fost talked about organizational succession planning while Liz Mitchell shared her organization’s turnaround story. All of these experiences, as well as today’s excellent post (John Gattuso of the Hunterdon Land Trust Alliance talks about losing and choosing board members), are, we hope, helpful to all of you folks in the nonprofit world who are struggling with the same issues.

We encourage you to comment on any of these blog posts with your thoughts, your questions, or your own organization’s struggles and stories and get a conversation going. At Dodge, we see this blog as a community forum – a place to get and give information – so your input is always welcome.

Stepping Up, Stepping Down

John Gattuso

I joined the board of the Hunterdon Land Trust Alliance about six years ago and have served as an officer for about four—first as vice president, now president. It’s been a period of rapid growth for the group, which was founded in 1996 as an all-volunteer organization and now has a staff of six.

I sometimes say the organization is in its adolescence: constantly changing and prone to growing pains. And while growth can be exciting, it’s also tricky to manage. Good planning is essential, but, as we learned at Dodge over the last couple of years, a plan will only go so far if we don’t have the people to execute and revise it. Thinking about what the organization is going to do is only half the battle. Knowing who is going to do it is equally important. For our trustees, and especially for our leadership, that meant getting a handle on the issue of board succession.

Ironically, one of the first and most important lessons we learned is to get comfortable with the idea of losing board members. Initially, I felt that a trustee resignation was a sign of failure. And, in truth, we lost several people in my first few years whom I regarded as part of the organization’s brain trust—some of our most experienced and accomplished members, not to mention a couple of our biggest donors. But I also saw a new generation of trustees step in and fill the void. We were lucky. The transition happened more or less organically, because we had people ready to move into leadership positions. But what if the situation had been different? What if nobody was prepared to lead? Clearly, this is not the sort of thing you want to leave to chance.

With Dodge’s encouragement, we came to realize that losing board members isn’t a defeat. On the contrary, it’s an opportunity to reinvigorate the board with new people, fresh ideas, and a broader network of supporters. It’s unreasonable to expect trustees to serve indefinitely, and it’s unfair to the organization to retain board members who aren’t fully engaged.

HLTA-Historic Dvoor Farm

As a first step, our executive committee decided to do a simple check-in with our fellow trustees. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a phone call to discuss their thoughts about the organization and their plans for the future. Did they feel their time and talents were being utilized effectively? Did they have an interest in a leadership role? Did they intend to continue serving on the board?

As it turned out, some trustees were thinking about stepping down but were reluctant to do so out of a sense of loyalty. They needed to know that it was possible to exit gracefully, with the organization’s thanks for their years of service. Just by starting the conversation, we gave them permission to leave the board with a sense of accomplishment instead of guilt.

Of course, the other half of the equation is finding new trustees. Until recently, our method—if you can call it that—depended mostly on personal recommendations. Typically, one of our board members would suggest a candidate and, after a little bit of vetting and a meeting or two, he or she would be invited to join the board.

Now we approach board nominations much as we would a new hire. It starts with an analysis of the skills, experience, and personal qualities the organization needs. We solicit names of potential nominees from our trustees and associates, narrow the list down depending on how well the candidates meet our criteria, then interview each one. It’s a fairly involved process, but it works. We recently welcomed five new trustees and three non-trustee committee members. Equally important, we’ve already started identifying prospects for our next round of nominations.

Finding and cultivating new talent is one of the key responsibilities of board membership, and it requires a sustained effort. Admittedly, it’s not always the most comfortable thing to contemplate—nobody likes to think they’re replaceable. But when the time comes to step off the board—and sooner or later that time comes for everybody—we should do so with the knowledge that we’re leaving behind people who can do the job at least as well as we did, if not better.

HLTA blog
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John Gattuso is president of the Hunterdon Land Trust Alliance, a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the natural resources, open spaces, and productive farms of Hunterdon County, New Jersey. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Milford, New Jersey, where he runs a design and communications firm.

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