13 Behaviors to Start Building Trust at your Organization

Here is the invisible thing that’s holding you back in your work

Here’s a diagram you can use to understand interactions at your nonprofit

MT: So what if I’m a new executive director and I want my board to trust me? You talked earlier about how boards can bully executive directors. What’s the first step you can take to start the relationship on the right foot?

MP: I’m not sure if it’s a first step. But one thing that I think is really important with executive directors is executive directors that care too much about the organization are too willing to fall on the sword for things that aren’t their fault.

Leadership means that stuff is – you’re responsible. That is awesome when leaders get that. I’m responsible for what happens here and I’m reporting back to the board and we missed the goal here.

But there are some things that have been systemic or endemic. They’ve been going on long before you got there. It’s actually the board’s malfeasance that’s allowing that to happen. So the level of maturity and trust building is also – again, without throwing a tantrum, saying this is something that I’ve noticed, being here. It’s gone on before me. Or just report back.

So one area, there’s a person running a campaign. The client wanted the money to go to the annual fund instead of the campaign because it didn’t specifically say on the check campaign, even though there had been no other appeal to that person but campaign. They were responding to a campaign appeal. There had been no other communication. So the consultant kept it on their dashboard in another spot of also this money came in.

So finally the board member was able to say, why is this not being counted as the capital campaign? This is clearly campaign money. We haven’t talked about the campaign. The client had to back that out and try to explain. The board member was unable to say. This had been going on for monthly meetings for a while, just in reporting. But it finally came to a point where the board member said, “If I were looking at this as the head of the organization, I’d look at it and say, looks like someone is trying to cover their tail. They’re not going to hit their numbers. They’re afraid they’re not going to hit their numbers and so they’re trying to pad the results at the expense of the capital campaign and the consultants.”

It was great to have a board member acknowledge that. So as an executive director, making sure the data is there for your board is one thing that’s really important. I think that’s just building trust. I guess another thing that surprises a lot of executive directors – and it involves directly building trust with the board – is realizing that board relations is a significant part of your time, of your week.

Most of us get hired by a board and don’t think that we need to maintain or steward those relationships. They just happen somehow. They don’t. So just like fundraising is probably going to be at least 50% of your job as an executive of a nonprofit that relies on donations to come in, board management is going to probably be 20%. So that leaves 30% maybe. I’m doing the math on the fly here. But I think 30% for your staff and then you figure out how to work with your staff into the other 50% and 20%.

Fundraising Career Conference 2016

But setting goals. Some of my coaching clients are shocked when I suggest, why don’t you set goals for where the board is now? This board member who’s going to be board chair in six months. What are the things that you wish they will know in six months when they become board chair? Well, I wish they’d understand fundraising. I wish they’d understand overhead. They’re trying to cut down overhead. That’s killing our organization. I wish they’d understand this. I wish they’d understand that.

Great. Those are your goals for them. So what are the things that you can do between now and six months to help resource them with the education they need? I could share that Ted Talk from Dan [unintelligible 00:34:06]. I could find board training in the area that resemble good governance, not dated methods. All of a sudden she started firing on all cylinders, this one client. At the end as we were reflecting on the call, she said, “I never thought of setting goals for my board members.”

But that’s a way of building trust. Because just like as a staff, we need to do resource and professional development, boards do too.

Simone Joyaux is the one who said, “No board member ever woke up in the morning and said, I want to be a lousy board member.” They simply just don’t know how it’s done. Nobody goes to board training school, or very few people do.

MP: So here’s the big one. It blindsides you. You think they should be casting the vision. The board should have a vision for the nonprofit. If you’re hired in as an executive director, all too often the executive director needs to create it. The sad thing is, the board doesn’t have one. The good news is, you get to define the rules. You get to define the game that you want to play. Run with that opportunity.

Fundraising Career Conference 2016

There are 13 behaviors that you can do to build trust.

  1. Talk straight.
  2. Demonstrate respect.
  3. Create transparency.
  4. Right wrongs.
  5. Show loyalty.
  6. Deliver results.
  7. Get better.
  8. Confront reality.
  9. Clarify Expectations.
  10. Practice accountability.
  11. Listen first.
  12. Keep Commitments.
  13. Extend Trust.

Delivering results, get better at what you do. Don’t just have the same year of work 15 times, but have actually 15 years of work experience. Confront reality, clarify expectations, practice accountability. Listen first instead of just being ready to jump in with an excuse.

Not listen with your mind distracted by what you’re going to say next, but actually listen with your mind engaged on what the other person is says. Keep your commitments and then extend trust to others. So the one I think for an executive director to a board is keeping commitments. He then goes through a definition of what that looks like, what the opposite of it looks like, and what the counterfeit looks like.

So keeping commitments, the definition is state your intent and then do what you say. Don’t break confidences in doing it. Plan your work and work your plan. The opposite of keeping commitments is breaking them or violating promises. Then the counterfeit, which is the most damaging for trust, is you look like you’re keeping commitments but it turns out it’s not. So that takes the trust factor even further down is over promising and under delivering.

So if a board member comes to you as an executive director and says, “Can I have this report at the end of the week?” And you know that you can probably do that. I call it the Scotty technique from Star Trek. I say, pad the time. In coaching we call that creating a reserve. If you know you can get it done in three days, say, yeah, I can have that to you in about ten days. First, it helps them realize, I can’t just demand things of the executive director. They have a full time job. Which a lot of board members don’t seem to understand. But it also allows you to keep the commitment. That’s why as a fundraiser, I always say try to get some sort of commitment from the prospect so you can go back to them and say, “As promised, I’m checking in with you again.”

Or you asked me to and I’m doing that. So you’re saying I’m a person of your word. What we see a lot is executive directors trying to tell the board what they think the board wants to hear and then knowing full well that they can’t deliver on all of that, or it’s not really where they need it to be.

The board is still playing the 1950s role of the organization. They want the organization to be mailing in checks to a social club when there’s actually real, tangible, other work that has to get done now. The people that are used to the social club board mentality, they’re not there anymore to be had. They’re dying off. But the negative is just trying to feed that kind of fantasy land of enjoying each other and not having to do any real work.

The executive director that keeps commitments and says, we need the board to do these certain things or we need to get someone to do it for us and the board needs to find that. So let’s have these conversations on how does this happen? How do we resource that? But the biggest part of this whole thing for me is that the executive director needs to extend trust to herself too. She needs to keep her commitments to herself.

I’m saying she, because by and large, nonprofit CEOs are women. Especially with the next demographic shift happening. So that means not staying at your desk until 8:00, 9:00, 10:00, or 11:00 at night. Not checking emails at 2:00 in the morning. It means taking time for yourself, making commitments to the people that you trust and love in your life and keeping them. I’ve got three fingers pointing right back at me, because early in my marriage, my wife said, “If I were an alum, you’d have time for me.”

Like, she would call me and I’d get annoyed. Even though she’s my best friend, she’s the one that I’ve said I want to commit my life to. But I wasn’t treating her as well as I treated strangers. I called that a relationship with the college. So keeping those commitments to yourself. Covey says, even within days you’ll start operating from a much healthier emotional place. Yeah, I am a person who keeps my commitments. Then so before you accept something from the board, wonder, can I keep that commitment? As a commitment keeper, is this something in keeping with what I can do? If not, have an honest adult to adult conversation with the board saying, “I want the best for this organization. I don’t think that we can deliver that. I don’t see the demonstrable results in our past history to double our fundraising. Is there something I’m missing? Is there a wildcard that you haven’t told me about? If not, what are some other ways we can agree on these goals but figure out the resources or figure out other ways to get this done?”

Is it extending the time? So you’re moving the goal post back a few years? There’s all sorts of different ways. But keeping the commitment to yourself so that you can give yourself a label of commitment keeper. I’m someone who keeps commitments to myself. You start radiating that.

There’s a neuropsychologist that I know, when he’s talking about rigidity, which is actually an action but an ineffective action because you don’t change given new data. You just keep doing what you’ve always been doing. He talks about the labels that we give ourselves. A lot of times, we’ll hold onto labels like I’m not athletic.

It doesn’t serve us anymore. But it’s an emotional, sentimental thing that we hold onto. So one of the commitments we can each keep with ourselves after listening to this could be just kind of getting into a quiet place and wondering

“What are the labels I put on myself?”

“Which ones serve me well?”

There are plenty that we give ourselves that serve us well. But maybe there are some other labels that they’ve run their course and it’s time for them to go. Kind of like training wheels on a bike or the retainer in your mouth that’s no longer needed when you’re a teenager.  In fact, I’m thinking I’m going to need to do this too. I wonder if there’s an invitation for me, too. What are the labels I get to get free of now? Because they don’t serve me anymore.

MT: You know, Marc, every time we talk, I just love that when you talk about what people need to do, you also talk about how you’re no better than anyone else and that you’re also working on the stuff. So I really appreciate that because I think people are like, everyone’s telling us what to do. No one’s showing any humility. But actually that’s the quality of a good leader is to show humility, and that’s part of how you build trust. So thank you.

MP: One of the things I would love your listeners to leave with too, is that being humble and being a commitment keeper and being trustworthy is also being very clear on what you do well.

So that is something that as a leader, too, will build trust with the board. They hired you because they think you know stuff well. So where you do, programmatically, fundraising wise, leadership wise, people wise, whatever it is. Being able to say, you know, there’s a lot of things I could work on. If you want to be self deferential that way. Then say, but I do know this area well, and that is totally off base. That is not just me saying that. I do the research in the field. I read the Chronicle of Philanthropy. I’m up on the studies that are being done by Concord Leadership Group and Compass Point and all.

That builds confidence in yourself of realizing not that I’m stomping on everybody else, but I’m building trust by saying, I do know this well. While there’s more I could learn, what is informing that opinion you just gave? Because here’s all the other information that I have that doesn’t square with what you just said. Again, adult to adult, saying it non-confrontationally.

MT:  Well, Marc, this is all the time that we have for today. But people are going to learn more when they come to your How to build Trust session and we’re going to tag team it. Marc, how can people get in touch with you if they want to learn more about what you do and what the Concord Leadership Group does?

MP: Well, definitely the three main sites for Concord Leadership Group. It’s like a group of brands. It’s You can go to to get the leadership sector report which could give you the data to have some of these hard conversations with your boss or board, if you need that.

If fundraising is your thing, is one of the longest running blogs in the nonprofit sector. That’s just a wealth of information. If resourcing yourself at an affordable price is something that’s really helping, it’s professional development for leadership and fundraising, offers that with monthly webinars and CFRE credits and all. But I’m always on Twitter at @marcapitman also.

Want to learn more about how to gain trust at work? Come to our session at the online Fundraising Career Conference, April 17. 19th and 21st.

Learn more here.

Posted in