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Board Members Reignited

Having served on my share of lackluster nonprofit boards over the last forty years (note that I said lackluster boards, not lackluster people or lackluster nonprofit organizations), having been part of many new trends in board development, and having read most of the good literature that is out there on boards, I guess I’m a little old-fashioned in coming back to the simple approach for getting boards to work: keep every member connected to their particular passion for the mission, have the board align on a big common goal, and give them a step-by-step pathway—and a coach—to ensure their success in attaining that goal.

In other words, reconnect them to their passion for your work and then involve them in designing and implementing a plan to attain long-term financial sustainability for the organization.

We believe this is the greatest contribution a board member can make.

At every one of our two-day workshops that I have the privilege of attending, I meet with the board members and volunteers (without their staff members present) for an optional chat at the end of the lunch break on the second day. Remarkably, although they have been working nonstop on this for nearly 20 hours and they know this meeting is optional, they all attend.

They come for two reasons: to meet other like-minded board members and volunteers and to ask the same question we all ask: “how can we get more board members to be thinking this way?”

Even within their own organizations, they are the pioneers. Many are longstanding board members; some are former board chairmen, now officially off the board, but more engaged than ever. Some are new to the board, love the mission, and excited about the opportunity to leave a legacy.

That seems to be the common theme at these meetings—these board members are not complaining in the least. They are turned on and engaged! They say this is the most exciting thing that’s happened in years at their organization.

What has happened to light them up like this? Two things.

First, we have them each share with their teams the answer to these questions: “Why do I volunteer with this organization? What is it about the work of this group that is so important to me personally?” That simple exercise—it takes about ten minutes altogether—is enough to reignite that unique strain of passion in each team member and bond them together and focus them powerfully on a common objective.

Which leads to the second thing: we have them define and then quantify what sustainable funding would look like for their organization. Most of these board members and volunteers are masters of the fundraising “treadmill.” Their arms are muscle-bound from so much strong-arming of friends to give money to their favorite cause.

The thought that they could actually help their organization get off that treadmill once and for all is so freeing for them. When they see that plan on paper—spreadsheets, numbers, formulas—and that it all hangs together in a logical way, they step right into action.

That passion, combined with a clear objective and a plan for fulfilling on it, turns the drudgery of board work back into pleasurable, satisfying work. In the face of all the work they have ahead of them, we don’t hear people complaining. On the contrary, these board members and volunteers leave our workshops on fire, hugging us, thanking us for returning them to their passion and helping them craft a plan. Many tell us that it’s all they ever wanted—to be able to leave that legacy.

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Renewing the Passion for Your Mission

Renewing the Passion for Your Mission

Scarcity and resignation, thinking it can’t be done—these are the recurring challenges for anyone committed to big results. To deal with these challenges, you and your team need to be able to readily tap into your genuine passion for the mission of your organization.

And there is definitely no scarcity of passion in the nonprofit world if you know where to look for it.

Almost everyone is originally attracted to a cause or organization because its work is something they feel passionate about. Whether that cause is families, foster care, substance abuse, mental illness, international relief, physical or intellectual disabilities, advocacy, faith, the environment, arts, education, healthcare, animal welfare, housing, or public policy, what attracts each person is almost always a prior personal experience.

Perhaps they have a family member with that particular disability or a close friend who experienced discrimination due to a mental illness. Perhaps they developed a love of the outdoors as a child, or their passion for science dates back to the first time they looked through a microscope in elementary school science class.

But passion can become buried or lost over time. When that happens, how do you get it back?

The Passion Retread Exercise
We do a small group exercise at our workshops that we call the Passion Retread exercise. Working in the nonprofit sector, the tread on the passion tire sometimes wears thin. So we ask each person in the small group to answer these two simple questions:

  • Why do you work or volunteer at this particular organization?
  • What is it about their unique work or mission that inspires you and keeps you engaged?

While some volunteers will say that they want to give back to the community, when we ask them to take a deeper look, many tell us they feel called to do the work of the organization. For them it is an avocation.

Answering these simple questions truthfully, in a small group of dedicated board members, staff, and volunteers, reconnects people to their own passion, to each other, and to the mission of the organization.

I once asked a group of board members from a chapter of the American Lung Association to answer these questions. One of their long-standing board members immediately offered his response. “I know exactly why I’m here,” he said. “When my son, Adam, was eight years old, he died in my arms while having an asthma attack. I vowed in that moment to give my life to doing whatever I could to find a cure for childhood asthma so that no other parent would ever have to experience such a tragic and painful loss.”

Before you embark on implementing the Benevon Model for Sustainable Funding, do this exercise with your entire team:

  • Ask each person to look more deeply at their own reasons for being involved with the organization.
  • Then give them the time to share their answer to this question with the rest of the group.

It will focus each team member on their unique connection to the mission of the organization and add new tread to their passion. It will bond you as a team and sustain you as you move forward.

A tip: this exercise also works well when done with long-standing board members, volunteers, and staff.