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An Open Letter to Nonprofit Boards from Your Staff Leadership

By April 23, 2014September 10th, 2015Engaging Your Board

People who want to do good work but aren’t sure how, are frustrated, or talking in circles and not taking action or simply rubber stamping staff work: Sadly, that’s how I’d describe some of the boards and staffs I’ve observed.

It’s time to publicly share common themes I experience when working with a nonprofit boards & staff through a training session or facilitating a retreat. I’ve found these themes show up no matter the size, financial situation, or maturity level of the organization. Do you see your organization in this letter?

Dear Board Member,

Thank you for agreeing to serve on our board! We are grateful you said yes when we invited you to serve.


The truth is, we are not quite sure what to do with you now.

We know you want to make a difference. But we don’t want to hurt your feelings, ask too much of you, assume you know anything about being a board member, or assume you DON’T know anything about being a board member.

Therefore, we are going to continue with business as usual doing our work and hoping for little to no disruption to our work following each board meeting.

We, the staff leadership, know we are supposed to have your input and vote on important things. We are supposed to invite discussion about “governance” and ask for guidance in running this amazing agency. But any new ideas you cook up, and you often DO have brilliant ideas and recommendations, usually require the staff to run faster and leap tall buildings and, frankly, my staff doesn’t have a spare second to do that.

If you really want to make a difference, here are some things you COULD do that would be of immense help in running this amazing agency:

  • Show up for meetings on time. Turn off your phone, don’t check your email and be “with us” for the entire meeting.
  • Come to each meeting FULLY prepared. Read the program summaries, financials, and other documents, and ask us questions that lead to discussions about capacity and your role to help us increase capacity.
  • Assign someone on the board to act as the “enforcer” to bring up action items the board agreed on last month and to find out what actions have been taken on those items.
  • Take it upon yourself to really “know” one or two areas of our programs that really light you up and learn a client story about it.
  • Pay attention to the update on our fundraising goals or the “funding gap” we must close by the end of the year or fiscal year.
  • Share our funding gap or what I like to call our “money story” and the client story you have learned with as many people as possible throughout the year.
  • Make thank you calls or send notes to some of our annual donors. They like to hear from someone other than staff.
  • Attend at least one agency event annually other than your required meetings. At that meeting seek out other donors who are in attendance to thank them for their contribution.
  • Attend our annual board retreat and stay engaged and participating for the full meeting.
  • Replace yourself when your term is up with someone of equal or more capacity to give, learn, and engage in a meaningful conversation that keeps our organization healthy.

If you would do some or ALL of these things, well, I’ll start doing things differently too. I promise my staff and I will do the following:

  • Provide meaningful, emotionally connecting and financially clear updates on our programs using dashboards and stories.
  • Take thorough minutes and provide action lists following board and committee meetings.
  • Acknowledge you and your important work via emails, notes, shout outs at meetings, and by welcoming your thoughts and questions.
  • We’ll do our best to have information for you that inspires action and recaps the actions you said you wanted to take.
  • Make it as clear as possible what things cost, how financial gifts make a difference and we’ll share that information with you often.
  • Remind you of meetings once and expect you’ve read the email or mail that we sent about the meeting.
  • Invite you to participate in donor solicitations if you’d like to share why you support our organization.

Okay, I’m getting excited and this list is pretty long. I’m sure there is more we can do, but this list is a start; and a good one to tackle together, don’t you think?

I truly hope I haven’t hurt your feelings or asked too much of you.

Staff Leadership at Many Amazing Nonprofit Organizations

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