This is part three of an interview with Andy Robinson, board trainer par excellence, where he talks about 2 exercises you can do right now to help your nonprofit board envision a grander future for your nonprofit.
MT: Are there typical challenges that boards tend to have in small organizations versus large ones?
AR: Yeah. I would say when you start – I’ll do a little conversation with you about how organizations grow and change typically. Most groups start as all volunteer organizations. We call these kitchen table groups because they usually start around somebody’s kitchen table. They’re not a staff. They’re all volunteers. It’s worth knowing that maybe 50% of the charitable organizations in the U.S. are informal kitchen table groups. They’re not incorporated. They’re not 501(c)3. They’re just groups that get together to do something together, and a lot of groups exist in that space a long time. Obviously at that stage, the volunteers are doing everything because there aren’t any staff.
Some organizations choose to hire staff. You usually have that first individual one staff organization alone in an office somewhere, working out of their dining room. Then maybe over time the organization grows and adds more staff and becomes more professionalized. Maybe they even grow up to become institutional in both the good and perhaps bad senses of the word. What I would say at each stage, what you need from your board is different. So there may be people who started with “small organizations” as you say, and they’ve hung around and they’ve been on the board for a decade or longer. Now they’re involved on the board of a large organization and their work has changed. What inevitably happens is as organizations grow and get bigger staff and have bigger budgets and become more complex, they become less volunteer driven and more staff driven. I’m not going to make a value judgment. I don’t think this is either good or bad. I think it’s just sort of how it works. So you have someone who’s been with a small organization and is now managing a big one, there’s often a tendency to micromanage. That’s something that you have to watch out for.
Exercise you can do with your board right now:
I’ll lay down these various stages of an organization (small grassroots, medium org, large institution) and put down tape on the floor. People will stand around and we’ll talk about it. I might say to various board members, ‘Where do you think the organization is now in its growth pattern?’ And I’ll have all the board members stand. Sometimes there’s a big difference. People have very different ideas about where the organization is in its lifespan. That leads to an interesting conversation because they may think that they’re governing different organizations. So that can lead to confusion.
MT: That’s fascinating.
AR: Then the other question I ask is, okay. Imagine that everything went great for the next five years. Where would you like to be standing on this line? Usually people move towards the bigger, more established, more institutional end of things because they want to have more money. They want to have a bigger impact. In some cases they want more structure, and that’s good. I would also say that people are afraid of becoming institutions, because we equate the word institution with idea like rigid or self-referential or not flexible. I think I’ve seen some really lovely institutions that handle that power and that money really well, and I’ve seen institutions that do it badly. So I guess the question I’m asking organizations often is who do you want to be when you grow up? That’s a good conversation for board members to have and for board members to even lead.
MT: One of the exercises I saw on your website was at the meeting, have people write down on their card what was the top thing that they took away, or the two top things. Then having them share that with another person. Then go around until almost everyone had talked with each other. I like that because then you can kind of see what people are really taking away. That goes back to what their perception is of where they want to go.
AR: This is a classic way to end any training or meeting or facilitated process, is you ask the group, what’s one or two things that really stick with you from today, or you want to take away?
Another question to ask is what do you think the most important next step is coming out of this? Then again, you have people do conversations in pairs of threes or fours. Then you go around the table and you collect them. It’s like crowd sourcing in real time, because you get a sense of what sticks for people and what doesn’t. If you’re the trainer or the facilitator or the group leader, that’s really useful information.
Tune in tomorrow for part four of this interview-where we talk about helping every single board member fundraise for you.
Here’s part one of the interview 2 things that make your board members work harder for you, and Part Two, Get more out of your board meeting with this ONE idea.