Are you overwhelming board members with hidden expectations?

Twice a year I’m part of nonprofit day for the clients of New Directions, The Life Portfolio Company that helps senior level executives navigate transitions.

I love participating in the day because each time I get a fresh business person’s perspective on the nonprofit sector.

This past Thursday, during a discussion about board roles and responsibilities, one of the participants asked if the following situation was typical:

“I went onto the board of a few nonprofits as part of the expectation of my job. It seems it wasn’t enough that I was attending board meetings, and bringing with me a pretty significant corporate gift and my own personal donation. In no short order, I started getting all kinds of additional requests from the staff … like attending events to requests to help open doors or solicit others. They acted like all of this was expected of me.

“I was overwhelmed by the hidden expectations of serving on a board. I had no idea what I was getting into.”

I’d say, unfortunately, that this was the norm, wouldn’t you? Obviously the organization failed to disclose to the board member when he was being recruited what they expected of him.  But even if they had, I’ll bet that he still would have received many more requests than he bargained for.

Why is it that once an individual joins a board that staff feel that the board member has made an open-ended commitment to their organization? “It’s their job to…” I hear staff say all the time.

While I love my board members to be thinking 24/7 how their daily contacts might also benefit my organization, realistically, I get it that my organization is likely 2nd or even 3rd on my directors’ priority list for their time, with family, work and maybe even play, ahead of me.

It’s time for our sector’s staff to stop acting like board members are indentured servants and remember them for the volunteers that they are. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter how much time they do put it, it’s never enough.

Take the board member who just did a full sprint on a project you gave them. I’m sure they’d like to take a deep breath before jumping into something else. If you immediately go after them for another time-consuming project, you’re very likely to make that board member feel that the time commitment is too much… and the risks of losing that board member are pretty high.

So what to do? Here’s a tip that the New Directions exec offered.

Instead of continuing throwing unexpected requests to your board members, sit down with each one and disclose the full list of  requests and tasks that you’d like that person to  take on that year. Then negotiate what your member is willing to commit to. Be realistic.

And once you’ve reached an agreement, stick to it. That way, your board member will feel successful, not overwhelmed. And you won’t be disappointed by what your board members can and cannot do.

Once this exec did that with his organization, he said that he felt much more in control, and much happier about his board service. Which is what we all wish for, right?

P.S. This board member also learned to limit his board service to no more than 2 boards at a time.

And of course, we’re here to help you right-size the expectations for your board.

Related posts:

Can mere mortals be successful board members?

Remember that your board members are volunteers too.

8 responses to Are you overwhelming board members with hidden expectations?

  1. Kirsten Bullock

    What a great topic (and one that I talked about this week too – their must be something in the air). Setting realistic expectations from the beginning is so important. And I love the idea of meeting annually to map out an agreement. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Karen_VolunteerSpot

    Thanks for taking on this topic. Board members, volunteers, it’s easy for there to be a disconnect in expectations. I love the idea of setting an agreement and term, but wonder if that might scare away new members to show the full menu of possible activities. Is it ever okay to start new board members with one set of duties/expectations and then grow them into more/different responsibilities as they build more ownership to the organization?

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      Of course! Sometimes board members aren’t ready to sprint right out of the gate but need a warm up first. Unfortunately, I often see new board members left behind without being asked for anything significant to do. So get them engaged right from the start.

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      Of course! Sometimes board members aren’t ready to sprint right out of the gate but need a warm up first. Unfortunately, I often see new board members left behind without being asked for anything significant to do. So get them engaged right from the start.

  3. Bunnie Riedel

    Makes me think it’s time to write an article on board recruitment and orientation. Expectations must be laid out at recruitment time.

  4. Amy Eisenstein

    Great topic, Gayle! And, thanks for the important reminders. I am generally coaching my clients on how to get inactive board members more engaged, so I may err on the side of over-expecting what board members can and really will do. As you alluded to, one way to solve this is with a written board expectation agreement at the beginning of every year, which includes financial commitments, committee assignments, number of meetings and events, etc.

  5. Sherry Truhlar

    Gayle, great advice. I like the one-on-one approach but I am also a fan of a board orientation when new members get a view of all the expectations during their term.

  6. Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

    I’m also a fan of group board orientation. But I don’t think that replaces one-on-one conversations with each board member about their own personal commitments. And, as this board member asked, that conversation should include a discussion about the full range of possibilities, instead of a slow drip of new requests throughout the year.

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