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How to Build the Winning Team (Board)

Resource Center - Foundation

Great donors and staff are important, of course, to the success of any charity. But if you ask Tom Nisbett, president of The Nisbett Group, the truly outstanding nonprofits have exceptional board members leading the way.

“I believe every nonprofit is limited and will not reach its potential unless it has a really great board,” says Nisbett, who’ll be discussing how organizations can attain such a board on Dec. 6 during his webinar Building a Winning Team. “The charities that I see finding immense success or are creating extraordinary impact—the one thing they have in common is a board that understands its role. If our organizations can create such a board, we are well on our way to greatness.”

It all starts with recruitment, and for most charities, that’s where the challenges and problems arise. According to Nisbett, the traditional process of having someone’s name come up, giving him or her a call, and hoping for a yes, is where the problems begin. “It’s just too casual—even if you hold formal sessions of throwing out names and seeing who knows whom. It’s got to go deeper than just who’s in the community at large. We need to look at who’s in OUR community.”

Nisbett says that most charities tend to look outside their circle of influence into the community at large, and don’t probe deep enough into their own circle of supporters—people who have been impacted by what the nonprofit does. I always hear ‘We need a lawyer, a CPA’—essentially rich people who know other rich people,” says Nisbett.  “We tend to overlook the dedicated volunteers whose inspiration and dedication can reach people in their circles of influence.”

Perception is another issue for recruitment that Nisbett feels many nonprofits don’t consider. Most charities seem to beg people to serve on the board, but what if instead serving on the board was considered a privilege? Charities should emphasize that there are empty seats on a fantastic and fun board, and that there is a waiting list. If nonprofits can create that sort of buzz around their board, they’re well on their way to recruiting a great board that can help propel them to success and impact.

The Right Process

Of course, to create that sort of buzz about a fantastic and fun board, nonprofits will need to have the right approach and process for recruitment. During his Building a Winning Team webinar, Nisbett will focus on several different aspects of board recruitment, including:

  • The process of identifying and cultivating the right board members, from having an application to building interest in your board and making it a privilege to serve;
  • New ways to motivate, train and develop board members to ensure they understand their role and actually engage in the organization; and
  • How to retire or rotate off inactive or weak board members.

The final point is one that nonprofits don’t always do well or graciously, according to Nisbett.  Maybe they’re just too busy, it’s not a good time in their life, or they haven’t received any training, but board members who aren’t active typically have very good reasons for not being engaged. Very few are out to cause trouble—most simply aren’t a good fit, and it’s critical for the nonprofit to disentangle these individuals from the board without losing their support.

“It’s a sensitive and delicate process, and one that most charities don’t know how to do well, but it’s critical if we want to develop an effective board,” says Nisbett. He’ll be discussing how to evaluate board members, what to do with ineffective and/or inactive individuals and ways organizations can graciously rotate them off the board.

After all, Nisbett maintains that executive directors need to spend at least a third of their time in board development until they’ve built a truly exceptional board through cultivation and training. And if you need to spend that much time with people, you need to make sure they’re the right ones for your organization.

Nisbett will present Building a Winning Team on Dec. 6 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time. More information on the webinar and how to participate can be found here.

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