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Unlocking the potential of a nonprofit board

If you’re leading a nonprofit, making a difference is probably your top priority every day. But making a lasting difference requires more than just your efforts alone. It often requires unlocking the potential of your governing board — the vast majority of whom are volunteering their time and energy. Leading high-capacity volunteers is much different than managing paid employees, however.

If you lead like an executive, relying exclusively on perks, persona or power to motivate your team, you might get some temporary buy-in, but it’s unlikely to last. Cultivating long-term commitment from a core of passionate, empowered volunteers requires a different kind of leadership. It requires a collaborative style that is rarely modeled effectively, and even less commonly taught. When embraced and embodied, this collaborative style establishes the kind of buy-in that compels others to join — and remain on — your team.

These are the teams that leave lasting legacies and cultivate thriving communities. How do you inspire collaboration among your leadership team? Here are eight essential questions that must be answered and embodied in order to lead in a dynamic, passionate and effective team environment.

What are our stories?

What stories, values and passions are we bringing into the room regarding our mission, cause or issue? What is at stake for each of us? How might we see things differently? What values do we share, even if our preferred modes of expression might be different?

Who has a stake?

Determine who genuinely wants to be involved in making decisions, along with people your mission will directly affect. Consider how to get both sets of people to the table. Do not involve people who don’t care or aren’t affected.

Who understands?

Identify who has the most expertise on the question, problem or process to help ensure you make the best decision. Encourage these people to take part. Try not to involve people who have no new insights or perspectives to contribute.

Who are we missing?

Objectivity on an issue is never a singular endeavor, and having an inaccurate or insufficient data set can result in a bad decision. Do we have someone who can fairly and accurately represent each group of our constituents and stakeholders? Who is not here that needs to be? Who is here that shouldn’t be? Try to avoid creating “noise” in decision making because of an unnecessarily redundant representative sample.

Who must agree?

Think of those whose cooperation or influence might be needed. It is better to involve deciders and influencers early than to surprise them and possibly encounter resistance.

How will we decide?

This is one of the most essential questions to answer, and it’s often the one least codified. As you think about the culture of your leadership team, determine how the big decisions are made. Will decisions be made by:

  • Positional power or an organizational chart?

  • A majority vote or consensus?

  • An arbitrator or a mediator?

  • Someone with the most expertise on the subject matter?

There are lots of ways that your leadership team can make decisions, but the point is the same: Decide early and communicate clearly how decisions will be made.

Who will champion?

No matter how fantastic your idea and mission might be, if a champion is not assigned to move the team forward, nothing will happen. Once you have come up with a plan, someone needs to be deputized. An added benefit: If you are also focusing on leadership development, deputizing someone else could provide key learning opportunities to prepare the next leaders within your organization.

Who feels safe?

Almost none of the above will matter much if your core, committed board or volunteer base doesn’t feel safe to raise objections, offer various opinions or creatively engage. You can have a well-represented board with a clear process and designated champions, but they must feel safe to fully engage. A feeling of safety helps create masters of your mission who cultivate thriving communities.

If you’re like me, you want to make a lasting difference, and board leadership is essential to that goal — but only if you’re leading effectively. Given that volunteers have limited availability, answering these questions will allow them to focus on moving the mission forward. Gaining their trust and buy-in is critical if you want them to become successful champions and ambassadors of your organization.

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About Aaron Engler

Aaron Engler has served as a commercial and nonprofit banker with Bremer Bank since 2021. He provides solid financial guidance and innovative solutions to be a valuable and strategic partner. By working in sync with external and internal partners, he can help to identify financial risks and opportunities. Aaron has the experience, organizational resources and tools necessary to help businesses establish and meet their financial goals. Before assuming his current role, Aaron worked as a commercial lender until his banking career took a hiatus to attend seminary and join the ministry. Ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church, he was the fou...

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