Monday, 12 December 2016 16:59

How Do I Re-energize my Board?

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One of the challenges I commonly see with nonprofit boards is fatigue. I’ve interviewed hundreds of nonprofit board members over the years, and in every board a proportion of individuals report feeling exhausted.

I typically come across two types of people who fit this profile.

One — the over-achiever

This might be a long-serving board chair, secretary, or just the one person you can go to who will always deliver. Maybe it’s the one person with a set of skills that you really need — real estate, or legal skills. This person is reliable, they give at a high-level, they reach out to their network, but this underneath this wealth of activity, often lies a sense of deep-fatigue and a sense of being taken advantage of. When I talk to this person, they will often report that they wish the work of the board was better balanced. Sometimes they will tell me that they have tried to resign, sometimes more than once, and that their resignation was not accepted.

The passive-resistor

This person is no longer working hard, they may have dialed down their giving (either through choice or necessity). They no longer attend every meeting. They take ages to respond to emails or requests. They often have been on the board for more than 5 or 10 years. It is not uncommon that they joined the board as a favor to a friend/founder.

So what can be done?

If you’re an Executive Director/CEO or another board member looking to re-inject some energy into your board, what are your options? Here are five things I’ve seen that work, over and over again.

  1. Reconnect to the mission and each other

    Do something that will help people reconnect to the mission of the organization. For example — you could have a board volunteering day. Have several clients come in and share their stories with your board members. Allow space and time in your agenda for social activities, a dinner, or lunch together.

  2. Do a better job aligning work-load to people’s interests

    Allow for a re-set. Ask your board through interviews or an on-line survey what time they have to commit and what they are most passionate about getting involved in. I typically see that there are a number of people on the board who are feeling under-utilized and wish their skills were being better used by the organization. Think expansively — do you have someone who loves doing graphic design, who is amazing on Twitter, or who could train your staff on how to do PR outreach? When you have a question, reach out to someone on the board you haven’t spoken to in a while.

  3. Re-balance the workload

    Take an explicit look at who is doing what. Give the over-achievers a chance to opt-out of activities. Ask them if they need a break — you’ll get more out of the them in the long run. Hand over core functions to those who aren’t doing much. Rejuvenate board roles (like chair, secretary, treasurer and committee leadership) on a regular basis.

  4. Institute formal term limits and board review

    Many boards never tackle this issue — they simply let board members hang around for as long as they want (or beyond when they really want to)! That doesn’t help anyone in the long run. It leads to fatigued board members hanging on well-beyond their tolerance limit. It also means that staff and the rest of the board don’t have an easy way to start a discussion about when it is time for someone to leave. Use term limits — 3 years is considered best practice, with an option for board members to renew 3 times, for a maximum of 9 years. Beyond that, even if they want to stay on the board — they should roll-off for 1 year. This gives everyone a chance to take a break. Being on a nonprofit board can be a lot of work. It is work that is best done with energy, and rest is one of the best ways to build up that energy. Make sure as part of this process (ideally annually), someone — a board or staff member, sits down with each board member to get check in and have a candid discussion about how things are going, both for the board member and the organization.

  5. Accept resignations

    This one can be scary for many executive directors. If you have a long-standing board member who tells you they want to resign, by all means, probe to make sure you understand why, but let them go! The only caveat I’d suggest is that you should ask for their help in filling the vacated board seat (assuming you don’t already have a waiting list of suitable candidates). The best way to rejuvenate and energize a board is to get some new members. Often, as scary as it may seem, by far the best thing that can happen to a board is to let people roll off, I’ve watched how much can change when newer members, full of new ideas, connections and excitement join the team.

 So, in summary — find ways to reconnect people to why you do what you do, align people’s interests to the work they are doing on the board, share the workload amongst your board, make sure you have some formal processes in place to keep things fresh, and when the time is right, accept resignations. All of these things will help ensure you have a high-energy, high-impact board in place.

Last modified on Monday, 12 December 2016 17:39
Liana Downey

Liana Downey is an experienced management consultant, who has consistently delivered results for clients on critical topics around the world. Liana is an expert advisor to the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Prior to establishing Liana Downey & Associates, she led McKinsey & Company's Australian government and social-sector practices, and holds an MBA (Public Management) from Stanford University.