How Passionate Is Your Board?

Imagine sitting with the founders of your organization at their very first meetings. What were they talking about?

It’s my guess that the people who sat around the table in those early days discussed questions like these:

  • How can we protect our natural resources or the quality of the air we breathe or the water we drink?
  • How can we ensure that our children have the best quality of life that we can provide?
  • What will make our neighborhood a better place to live?
  • How can we provide ways for art to flourish in our community?
  • What will it take to bring about an end to this deadly disease?

And as they spoke, it was clear that everyone in the room shared a vision of a better future. They were committed to taking action because they felt the urgency of their cause. Though they knew that they were committing themselves to countless hours of difficult and sometimes frustrating work, they knew also that they would be energized by the strength of this new community that could help bring their common dream to reality. In short, this was one passionate group of individuals.

Does this sound like your Board?

If your Board is bored, it’s very likely that it has lost its passion. Or the people you have recruited to serve on the Board never had that passion to begin with. Reviving the passion is one of the secrets to Board success.

But how do you do this?

Recruit passionate people

In our rush to recruit warm bodies and fill the holes in board skill matrices, we often forget that the very first criterion for Board membership should be passion for the mission. If your board members really don’t care very much about what it is that you do, how can you expect them to be effective governors?

My rule of thumb for board recruitment is that your organization should rank first or second on the personal passion list of each of your board members.Why? Because:

  • Board members who are passionate about the mission are not content to let organizations stagnate.
  • Passionate board members don’t make important decisions without serious consideration.
  • Committed board members hold their organizations accountable to produce positive change in the world.
  • Passionate board members share their passion with individuals in the greater community.
  • Passionate board members don’t need much convincing to make leadership gifts to the organizations they believe in.
  • Passionate board members infect others with their passion and inspire them to get involved or give too

Refocus discussions and action on the societal impact you want to create

A board that focuses solely on operations is sure to become a bored board. Over the course of a year, shift discussion so that your Board can spend the majority of its time and energy focused on the mission of your organization.

For example, if your Board is a conservation organization, it could set objectives on how many acres of land it would like to save and where. For a school, what should children know and be able to do when they graduate from your institution? For an arts organization, what new talent have you discovered and nurtured, what impact has your work had on the fabric of your community?

To set objectives like these, your Board will need to thoroughly understand the needs of the community it serves. It will need to clarify the values that guide action. It will need to talk to other organizations to discover the real difference your organization can make. I

It is good work for Boards to struggle with questions about what outcomes are achievable, desirable, and necessary and  in what timeframe and with what resource commitments.

Other compelling and important conversations are to figure out how to measure whether your programs are having an impact or not, to constantly scan the future by monitoring changes in the greater community and to reassess what your organization needs to be prepared to face in the future.

This is hefty and important work. To do it, you need passionate board members inspired by the potential for change, willing to undertake the education, outreach and deliberation that this work requires.

Ultimately, the Board needs to follow John Carver’s instruction to “cradle the vision” of those original founders, adapting to new challenges and conditions, but staying true to the passion for a better world that was at the heart of your organization’s birth.

This article first appeared in Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review at Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs.