July 1, 2019

Creating Connection Among Your Board in Times of Transition

Emily Resnik, LISW-S, Clinical Social Worker and OAESV Board President

When a nonprofit board is at its best, members are consistently engaged; they have frequent, clear, and productive communication with one another and the executive director; they govern in a way that protects the interests of the organization; and they promote, fund raise, and advocate for the organization in their networks and communities.

However, transitions can dampen and disrupt those effective connections: new executive committee leadership, numerous new or departing members, hiring a new executive director, staff turnover, financial challenges, and more. While all boards endure periods of transition, how they choose to respond to them can make or break the relationships among their membership. Below are four suggestions for creating connection among your board members in times of transition:

1. Provide a thorough interview and orientation process.

A board member's on-boarding sets the stage for their entire experience on the board. When expectations aren't clearly communicated, a board member may not know how they fit in, what the norms are for communicating, or even fully understand their role as a member of the board.

Ultimately, their silence or inaction could end up leading them to feel isolated and excluded, and leading others to interpret their behavior as a lack of commitment.

A thorough interview and on-boarding experience can ensure the organization's mission and philosophy are clear and that it's something the individual can support. It provides them an opportunity to meet numerous board members from the beginning, fostering those relationships early on. And through those conversations, they are provided with training on their role and what is expected of them in various settings, and they can begin to see themselves as a member of the team.

Consider building mentors into your on-boarding — a designated person new members can ask questions they may not want to ask in front of the whole group, who helps them learn group norms, and even help them make sense of the alphabet soup of grants and other funding sources.

2. Create "honey moments".

Times of transition can create unequal distributions of work as more senior members work to continue the work of the board and new members learn their roles, and the nature of non-profit work can feel truly unrelenting at times. Especially when agencies are facing financial challenges, morale decreases and frustrations multiply.

One way to counter burnout and fatigue is to create "honey moments" — actions that sweeten the experience of serving on the board and express genuine appreciation. From celebrating personal achievements, to sending a handwritten note, or providing small tokens of appreciation — when we stop to recognize each other's humanity, we create lasting connections that can weather the challenges ahead.

3. Celebrate successes that connect members to the organization's mission.

Using honey moments can offer that personal connection we all need, but sometimes may not be enough to help during a period of transition. Nonprofit work is often thankless work, whether we're a volunteer, staff, or board member. This is especially true when we're doing macro-level work and it is months or years before we see the outcomes of our efforts. We can lose sight of what motivated us to join the board in the first place.

Incorporate success stories into meetings and regular communications — these stories help board members, who may not be witness to the day-to-day impact of the organization's services, reconnect to the heartfelt desires that motivated them to join the board in the first place. Each board member made a decision at some point that they wanted to volunteer time, effort, and expertise to the organization; making it a habit to connect to the reasons behind those decisions creates a sustainability that cannot be replicated.

4. Be open to even more change.

Change can be terrifying — taking on new leadership roles, stepping outside of our comfort zones, not feeling sure of the path forward in the face of new obstacles. During change, our gut reaction may be to seek what feels familiar and predictable, but this resistance to change itself may actually hold us back.

Changes in membership and leadership provide a team with opportunities for reassessing individual skills and their skills as a collective. Identify gaps and growth areas. Ask your members how the board can make the best possible use of their skill sets and passions, and then place people in roles that fit their skill sets or passions or that foster their own professional development.

You don't have to be in an officer or committee chair role to implement these suggestions — leadership is a state of being, not a title. So what are you waiting for — what are two things you want to implement with your team in the next month?