Our management consulting practice includes a significant number of not-for-profit and charitable organizations that vary in size, mandate, composition, and geography; and that have a range of funding sources including government, membership fees, foundations, fee for service offerings and donors. What they all have in common is that they are governed by a voluntary board of directors.

The CEOs / Executive Directors who are successful leaders have a vision for and a passion about their organizations, and they know how to recruit, inspire and engage their volunteer board members.

We have one client who is the CEO of a national organization that when she took over 10 years ago, it was a demoralized organisation in a deficit position with 6 employees. She now leads a 100 person organization with nine offices across the country; she has built up a significant reserve fund and is the leader in that sector. The composition of this board is diverse in terms of geography; they come from across the country but they are all interested in the cause and affiliated with it in some way in their professional lives. They are all busy professionals with important positions in their ‘day jobs’. Yet she is able to consistently attract high-calibre and committed board members to her organization and prevails upon them for their insights and their knowledge.

We have another client who started up a not-for profit in NS with a commitment to wean the organization off government funding over a four-year period. Not only has she been successful in doing so, she too has a reserve fund and has opened a second office internationally. Her board comes from a very specific and defined group of members and her challenge is that these board members are not the heads of their organizations. Therefore, she needs to ensure that she knows not just how to motivate the board members but also knows the priorities of their organizations and their leaders. Her’s is in many ways a more complex challenge in that she needs to maintain two sets of relationships. Without the decision-makers sitting at her board table, she must ensure the board members, who are in fact the influencers, are communicating a persuasive and supportive message to their organizational heads.

Both of these leaders have had very different struggles, but what has sustained them both, is that they have had a very clear and compelling vision of where they want to take their organization, a strategic plan to guide them and the wisdom to manage and lead their boards in a manner that supports their organization and ensures board members feel their contribution is making a difference.

Strong, visionary CEOs know how to bond with their volunteer board members. Board engagement is hard work and takes a certain amount of charm combined with hard-nosed business sense. It is one of the critical attributes of the successful not-for-profit CEO. An effective board with existing high-calibre members attracts new high-calibre board members and also attracts funders, clients, employees and sometimes, the public and media.

One of the most successful charitable organizations we have seen is a small community-based organization whose Executive Director has a fervour for his job and his casue that is truly contagious. Over the 20 years he has served in his role, he has led from behind. But make no mistake; he is the leader of his organization. He works closely with his board chair, keeps his board informed and excited about the work of the organization, and paints a clear picture of where the organization is headed. He has more than one year operating expenses in his reserve fund, a new building fully paid for through a successful capital campaign, and a new venture in the planning stages. His board comes from the community and the public-at-large which presents a whole other set of challenges. But their motivation is uniform and consistent. These board members are driven by the cause so his success is dependent on tapping into the passion of his board members.

These CEOs are successful because they are not only passionate about their organization’s mission and tireless about pursuing their vision but they also know how to connect, engage and collaborate with their volunteer board members to keep them excited. These are also the CEOs who work with their boards to renew their vision, develop a strategic plan every three to five years, and hold themselves and their boards accountable for delivery of the plan. The value for the organization is that these CEOs usually attract creative, enthusiastic and committed board members who often go beyond the call of duty to support them in running highly successful organizations.

Volunteer board members are motivated by their desire to give back and / or make a difference and CEOs of NFP organizations need to tap into those philanthropic, big-hearted genes. They need to know why their board members are there and what they require in return to ensure their ongoing contribution of time and talent. That special insight combined with some good old-fashioned TLC makes all the difference and keeps volunteer board members engaged, involved and enthusiastic about the organization.

In summary, successful engagement of volunteer board members in not-for-profit organizations is an essential part of the CEO’s job. It involves:

  • Strategic recruitment to ensure the board has the right combination of skills, talent and commitment of time;
  • Generating passion and enthusiasm for the vision and the mission of the organization;
  • Holding the board and the organization accountable for organizational performance and delivery of the strategic plan; and
  • Understanding what motivates each board member and tapping into their good-will and altruistic disposition.
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