Dot Org Solution’s Sara Lundenberger Gives Her Advice on Board Communications

Have you ever disagreed with a board member? Or had a board leader who didn’t quite understand how your nonprofit works? Depending on your board’s beliefs, backgrounds and professional experiences, they may not see eye to eye with everything you do in your organization. When that happens, you need to communicate effectively to see it through. 

Sara Lundenberger is Director of Nonprofit Consultant at Dot Org Solutions in Akron, Ohio, helping dozens of organizations build their board. A few weeks ago, we learned how to recruit passionate board members with Denny Young, and in today’s interview, Sara emphasizes the importance of communication. 

Some of the most important lessons learned from today’s interview are how to
  • Set boundaries and expectations with new board members
  • Think outside the box when recruiting new members 
  • Finding balance and communicating effectively through a disagreement and, 
  • What to prioritize in the hiring process

Official Transcript

Hello and welcome to Fundraising Superheroes, a podcast brought to you by Donor Engine. I'm your host, Sabrina Sciscente, and if you're not familiar with us, Donor Engine is an all in one nonprofit software built from the ground up for you and your team. Our goal really is to help you save hours of time in managing your volunteers, team and donor data so that you can refocus that time into your cause. Please give us a visit at DonorEngine.Com to learn more and get a demo that will help you save hours in management.

So in case you missed it, Denny Young joined us a few episodes back to discuss how to recruit engaged, passionate and dedicated board members. That episode gave us a lot of tips on building your board. But what about afterwards? What do you do if you have an extremely knowledgeable board member who just isn't informed on the nonprofit space’s ins and outs? Well, this is where Sarah Lundenberger comes in to save the day. Sarah is a nonprofit consultant, at Dot Org Solutions, whose goal is to support nonprofits in their success.

She integrates best practices with an organization's capacity to create processes and plans that are usable and effective. So thank you so much, Sarah, for joining us today.

You're welcome. I'm really excited to be here.

So from your experience, what is the biggest challenge nonprofits face after forming their board? 

So I think there's a few things that can really be challenging when a board kind of comes together. One would be, truly board members just not understanding what their roles are. You know, there's a lot of things that boards are responsible for overseeing. There's fiscal there's just general organizational oversight there's policy creation and enforcement. There's a lot that boards do that if you've never been on a board or never been involved in a board, you really, I don't think, completely understand exactly what your responsibilities are going to be.

I think another thing that they really have a hard time with is they don't really know a lot about your organization. I mean, if you're lucky, yes. You've recruited some board members who have volunteered with you or have done some other things with your organization. But for the most part, they may not know a lot about what you do or how nonprofits run in general, which I think is probably the biggest issue that boards see is that there's a lot of people that work for for-profit companies and don't understand that difference of what nonprofits do, how that's different than a for-profit, some of those budget issues that nonprofits face.

The other thing I think is if you're bringing on new members to a already existing board, kind of that old member versus new member mentality, you know, new members might have new ideas and want to do things differently. And there's always that struggle between "but we've always done it this way", "this is how it's done", and that can sometimes create animosity. So I think those are some things that you really need to worry about and pay attention to when you're dealing with new board members or a new board in general.

So it's almost like there's seniority with some of the older board members, and it's kind of finding that balance between the old new. Respecting the way that things were done before and worked, but also accepting new ideas. 

Yeah, I think so.

I know whenever I've joined a board, I feel like those first couple of meetings, I just sit and listen to them and feel like, well, maybe I should be participating because I do have ideas, but I don't want to be disrespectful to what has come before me. So I feel like you end up as a new board member asking those questions like, "I know I'm new here, but" or, you know, "I don't know if this has ever been brought up before, but", that type of thing, just to kind of cover the whole I realize I'm new and I don't want you to feel like I'm speaking out of turn. 

So I love that you touched on the idea of people coming from a for-profit sector sometimes aren't familiar with how nonprofits do things and that can create some communication issues. So how do organization leaders communicate to board members with little to no nonprofit experience? What needs to happen in order to get them in the nonprofit loop? 

So I think a big part of that is onboarding. A lot of non-profits don't have an official onboarding for their board members.

They may have spoken to a board member on the phone or the president of the board or maybe the nominating committee president has spoken to that person before they've come on, but there's not a true onboarding process. So we always like to tell our clients that it's really important to think of it just like you're bringing on a new employee. If you bring on a new employee that very first day, they don't just sit in meetings and then you see them again next month.

You know, it's really important to really explain to them, A, what the organization does, why it's important in the community, what would happen if that organization went away. And just make sure that you're really explaining to that board member the ins and outs of your nonprofit in general. Even if they have sat on a different nonprofit board, it may be very different than the way yours runs. You know, they may have sat on a huge hospital board with a multimillion dollar budget and your budget is one hundred and twenty thousand dollars a year. 

There's a huge difference between sitting on that board versus your board. So I think kind of teaching them that as they come on. I also think that creating job descriptions for your board members and committee members so that they really can read through what their expectations are. What they're expected to do if they sit on a committee, what their expectations on that committee are, all of those things so that it just clears out for them exactly what it is that their role is here, you know, have them meet with your staff, go on tours of your facilities, you know, all of those things just so they get a little bit of more information.

We always do orientation for new staff, but very few places do it for your board.

We had Denny Young come on the show a few weeks ago, and he was also talking about board members. And one thing that he said that really stuck with me was that you adopt your organization when you become a board member. So bringing them through your facilities is a great way to show them really what you're all about and let them know what's important to you and your values. 

So when you're bringing on a new board member, if after that orientation process they decide that, maybe this isn't for me or maybe that I'm not a hundred percent dedicated to this cause in particular, what needs to happen?

Like, is it a matter of saying, OK, thank you for your time, or should you try to negotiate with that board member and see if you can make it work?

I think that's a little bit situational to me. If they truly are just this, I know what your organization does, this is not what I'm interested in. I think that's one thing. And yes, I think at that point you can say, well, then thank you so much for your time and let them go. Suppose it's a more of a oh, gosh, you know. In that case, I don't really have experience doing this or I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to be doing, if it's that type of thing that I think just trying to talk to them about what that really looks like, you know, encouraging them to sit in on committee meetings so that they can see what the other board members are.

I've even seen boards where a senior member of the board kind of takes a younger member under their wing as almost like a mentee mentor relationship to teach those board members how to participate in a nonprofit board. But I think if the person just straight up says, you know, like what you're doing is really not interesting to me, it is not my passion. I would say cut them, cut them loose, because that's not the type of person you want on your board.

Oh, definitely going back to what we were talking about before,  I don't know if this is a problem with new board members, but I can see it possibly happening with older experienced board members. When a member and an organization executive aren't seeing eye to eye, how can they work through that issue? 

That's really tough, because as an executive director or as a senior-level manager or whatever at the nonprofit, the board is technically your boss.

So I think that's a really, really slippery slope that you can participate there, because at the end of the day, the board is who you report to. I think it's really usually when you see those instances, there's just either a lack of information or understanding on what is needed or expected from one side or the other. So the board's expecting one thing and they're not getting it from you or the nonprofit staff is expecting something from the board and they're also not getting that.

So I think sometimes it can just be a conversation of, you know, structuring board meetings differently. We hear a lot of nonprofits saying that the board doesn't focus on high-level, they focus on the minutia. And then when you look at the agenda and what you're sharing with them, you're sharing with them the minutia. You know, what you're talking to them about is not, you know, we're doing a gala. This is when it is our main sponsor.

And that's that you're telling them what colour the napkins are going to be. If you're reporting that to your board, then you can't not expect them to have an opinion on it. But if you're only sharing with them high level strategic, you know, this is our gala and we're looking for sponsors. This is what we need you to do to help us, then that's different. So I think sometimes those  issues arise just from those things that you're sharing with the board.

And then when they have input, it's not the input you wanted, but you didn't tell them what you were actually looking for and then your wires just get crossed.

And then I think, again, that whole, you know, clear roles and responsibilities of what the board is, you know, going back to what you really are expecting your board to do those job descriptions. I've seen scorecards, I've seen pledge cards that board members can fill out to see how they're going to participate in different ways, things like that, that I think make it a little bit clearer so that you know exactly what to expect out of your board members and then they know exactly what to expect from the staff.

That's an excellent idea. So I guess the main focus, in any professional relationship, but especially between a board member and an executive director, is that communication and really ironing out what everyone's roles are and the steps you take when making a really big decision?

Yeah, I think that as an executive director, you always hope, obviously, that the chair of the board is someone that you get along with, you have mutual respect for. But that's not always the case. Sometimes there is a chair of the board that you just don't see eye to eye with. And I think that the important thing there is to remember that for most boards, that person will only be chair for a short time.

Right. So really, it's only a year or two probably that you have to really work closely with that person. But again, as I said, just making those clear ideas of what they're expecting. You know, usually, especially when it comes to financials, sometimes, you know, board members don't understand the costs of non-profits. So they may get bogged down in something like postage. That's pretty much, it's going to be that number regardless.

You know, there's no way around the price of a stamp. You can you might be able to tune your list, but sometimes boards get bogged down in those details. And that's what really frustrates the executive directors. But again, it goes back to what are you telling them and are you explaining it well? And just that mutual respect.

When people are hiring their board members, I know passion is a really big thing, but how important is a board's experience? Do you think that experience is something that they need to have or, you know, helping them understand your organization and the ins and outs of the nonprofit sector, something that can be taught in the onboarding process?

Yeah, I think it's a little bit of both. You know, I think it's kind of like when you're hiring a position, you know, depending on what that position is, you may say, yes, I want someone with five to ten years experience. I don't want to have to teach them. I don't want to have to,  walk them along every step of the way. But then I think there are other instances where you say, no, you know what?

I really would much rather hire someone with no experience and teach them the way I want things done as opposed to having to break bad habits. So I think with your board, it can be the same thing. If you have a lot of people on your board that has a lot of experience on boards, then bringing on some people that are probably younger and haven't had that ability to be on a board and teaching them correctly how to be a positive board member can be just as advantageous as having only people that have only sat on large boards on your board. 

Because I think it's just that balance of experience versus excitement, maybe? You know, the excitement of this is my first time on a board. I am super passionate about whatever it is our organization is doing. I've never done this before, like just starving for that knowledge of being involved and being active versus the "oh, yes. I've sat on multiple boards. Yes, I know how this goes".

I think both of those are positives sometimes depending on the makeup of your board of all the other board members as well.

Something that I find really interesting is when you said about the older, more experienced board members coming in and having that habit, do you think that it's important to when you're cutting your board, have a lot of diversity, you know, whether that be in ethnicities, backgrounds and age and gender?

I think so. You know, I know that that's such a hot topic right now is diversity in general. But like you said, you know, it can be age, gender, your experience, your skills, your interests, what field you're in. You know, I think all of that is important, especially in a nonprofit, you know, when you're talking about fundraising. Right. This is a huge portion of what the board's supposed to be doing, even though a lot of boards don't believe that it is true that they're there to fundraise.

You know you want some people that are the owners, VPs, presidents of companies. Right. Because they can write large checks, they have different connections. They can get you into meetings with other VPs, owners, leaders of companies. But just like, you know, that's one level of fundraising, major gift is one side of fundraising. You also may want someone that has more of the foundation touch that may have more. They're more known as a philanthropist in your world or in your area.

And they're going to reach out to other philanthropists and other foundations and things like that and make that connection. And then you still need the worker bees. You know, you still need those people that are more lower-level probably in their companies, but they may be able to set up a drive at their company or they're going to start a walk for you.

So I think just like fundraising is so multifaceted, your board should be made up that way as well, so that you have a little bit of everything from, you know, age, gender, field, all of that, so that you can get those different perspectives and different connections in the community.

Yeah,  I talked to Sabine Soumare last week about diversity, and she really drove the point home of a diverse board, a diverse group of leaders can bring in so many different perspectives. And I think that when you're in the sector like nonprofits, where your priority is really your cause and the community, it's so important to have a representation of everyone that you're helping out. I know if I walked into an organization, maybe not cognitively, but I'm always going to look for somebody who I relate to and who I feel I relate with me.

And that will help me understand the organization more. And as a donor to some nonprofits, that's helped me feel more secure in my donations.

Yeah, and I think to you know, we're working with a local nonprofit right now who is trying to recruit new people to their board. And one of our suggestions was trying to recruit a few of their clients or their families to their board. Because just like you said, what a different perspective of someone that's actually using that nonprofit service. You know, so have some people that are on your board in some capacity that actually know what it's like to come to your food pantry and get food.

And I think that perspective sometimes on a board can be amazing, not for the organization, but also for the other board members. You know, most of these people are more than likely if they're sitting on your board, they've never really had a need for your services. So, again, that's completely dependent upon your nonprofit. But if you can bring in people that are physically participating in what it is you're doing, that can sometimes bring in a whole different perspective.

Oh, totally. Talk about hands-on experience. That's the best way for them not only to know how you operate but also to the impact of how you operate. So that's a great suggestion. 

And I think, you know, especially now that 2020 has been such a crazy, tumultuous year. Right. A lot of nonprofits are having to pivot and either do things completely differently, do things a little bit differently. They haven't been able to function at all or they have pivoted in some way. So I think now is a great time to talk about diversity on boards to get all of those different perspectives, because if you're brainstorming new programs, that might be needed.

Or one of your programs is now completely not needed or completely unable to continue, then this is a great time to say, OK, let's go to our board and say, what are your ideas? You know, how can we continue to provide our services in a world where we can't get together with people? We can't bring groups of people together to do events. We can't have group therapy sessions.

We can't have, you know, how do we do this? And I think having a diverse board is one big piece of that. 

Definitely. Well, thank you so much, Sarah, for sharing your knowledge with us. I hope everyone out there learned a little something new about how they can better their boards. If anyone else needs help with their communications, fundraising or digital marketing strategy. You can get in contact with Sarah through her company's website, DotOrg Solutions.

I've linked that in our bio. I've also provided a link to their webinars. They have a ton of great resources coming out. So need help with anything involving your nonprofit please check that out. 

And as always, thank you so much for listening and we'll see you next time on Fundraising Superheroes.


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Podcast Oct 14, 2020, 12:00 AM

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