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How Professional Help Can End Board-Member Burn-Out … and Keep Your Organization Alive and Well

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Jeff Brooks is facing a problem — one that’s outside his area of expertise. He doesn’t know what to do, so he turned to the amazing Simone Joyaux for help. We thought you’d enjoy listening in on their conversation….

Jeff: Help me, Simone! I’m on the board of a small nonprofit. We are a community orchestra with an annual budget of about $100,000. Almost everything we do is done by volunteers, and the majority of the volunteers are board members. It’s always been this way. But board members are getting burned out. We’ve dropped the ball in serious ways a number of times. And we are so busy, we have little energy for actually doing the leadership role of a board. It’s stressful and discouraging. I want to escape! And I’m not the only one!

What can we do?

Simone: First, know that you’re not alone! This is a very common problem for board members of nonprofit organizations.

Board members are always volunteers in nonprofits. You go to meetings and have lots of discussions and make decisions. Then someone carries out the work. And oftentimes, that “someone” is volunteers. And sometimes those volunteers carrying out the work are also board members.

For example: Bob is an orchestra member. He also serves on the board. He has agreed to be the board treasurer. That means he is the lead board member on the governance work for finance. Bob also pays the bills, handles deposits, balances the accounts, files tax returns and other duties that would be done by the finance manager – if you had one.

Jeff: Simone, you have exactly described our treasurer! Are you a mind reader? Our “Bob” is super busy all the time with those finance director duties.

Simone: I’ll tell you something else about your Bob. He’s often confused. Because he’s wearing two different hats, and he probably doesn’t realize it.

There are two kinds of work to do in any nonprofit: governance stuff and management stuff:

  • “Governance” refers to discussion and decision-making done by the board of directors – together at board meetings. You set policy and oversee the work.
  • “Management” refers to what is typically done by staff, whether paid or unpaid. Like pay the bills, talk to vendors, etc.

So, which hat are you wearing when you’re doing what? That really matters. Clear distinctions between governance and management are critical. Everyone in the organization has to understand the distinctions and be very clear which hat to wear in which situation.

Jeff: Okay, I can see how that’s important. And honestly, I’d say all of us on the board have governance and management completely muddled in our minds, so your “two hats” rule will make us smarter about our jobs. 

But we still have to do so much work. It’s exhausting! Many board members cut and run the minute their term is up, and it’s hard to get new board members, because apparently they tell their friends not to join because of the workload! Is there anything we can do to change that?

Simone: I get it, Jeff. I see this all the time in nonprofits. Let me reiterate: First, you must recognize and apply the two-hat rule. That’s the first and ongoing forever thing. It really will help everyone if everyone does this!

Related to that, it really helps to be very, very clear about what the organization is asking someone to do. Distinguish between board member (governance) and volunteering for management activities. Be reasonable in workload expectations.

Tell each board member that the orchestra expects her to do governance and, at least for now, specific management-type duties as described in their job description.

During the recruitment process, tell prospective board members the same thing. They’ll be doing governance plus specific additional duties. Be specific! And do your best to match these duties to people’s skills and talents.

But wait! How about this? Suppose you’re talking to someone about being on the board, and she’s being hesitant about it … then you find out she’s a very good writer. See if you can get her to be your volunteer donor newsletter writer. And not be on the board! She might be ten times happier with that arrangement, and you’ll end up with a better newsletter — and one fewer burned-out board member.

Jeff: Wow, that’s interesting. In fact, we have a few people like that already. They refuse to join the board, but they do a great job at specific volunteer duties! We just need more of them.

Simone: That’s right. Diversify your volunteers. You want board members. You also want volunteers who are not board members, who will take on tasks. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have bunches of volunteers – so none are so overworked that they cut and run and tell their friends to avoid serving your orchestra?

Jeff: I’m feeling better already. But I’m also feeling kind of burned out. I love making music, but I hate being on the board — even though I know someone has to do that so we can make the music. Is there anything else we can do to fix this?

Simone: Yes there is, mon frère! Drum roll, please. Here’s probably the most important thing you can do: GET MONEY. 

Jeff: Wait a minute. I’m constantly saying that. You’re turning the tables on me!

Simone: You work with a lot of different organizations. Tell me the truth: How often do you tell nonprofit organizations that they have to spend money to make money?

Jeff: About three times a week… or more…

Simone: So you already know what I’m about to tell you about your orchestra and getting money!

Jeff: Okay, that’s embarrassing. I know what you’re going to say, but it’s advice I don’t feel ready for.

Simone: Don’t feel bad! The thing is, it’s hard to think clearly about money when it’s your own organization’s money. That’s true about you and me and everyone who’s reading this!

So what I’m telling you might be easy in theory when it’s someone else’s money, but a hard truth to grasp for your own organization.

Here’s that hard truth: You should contract with a successful fundraising consultant to provide advice and counsel. Maybe one day a week, three days a month — something. That’s how you can get over this barrier that’s making life difficult. (By the way, be sure you’re paying a flat fee or an hourly wage. Never, ever should you pay a percentage of money raised. That’s highly unethical.)

Jeff: But … but …

Simone: I know what you’re going to ask: How can you get money to hire that professional? You must distinguish between building your organization’s capacity and supporting your organization’s mission.

What’s capacity building? Developing the skills to govern, manage, fundraise, and market your organization well. The good news is, some foundations give grants to build capacity. These foundations understand that just funding programs is a dead end. The foundation wants to help the organization build its own capacity to operate a highly effective organization.  Some community foundations fund the first fundraising position. Some foundations fund consultants to teach an organization how to fundraise, do governance, whatever.

Or you might bring together several donors who understand the value of building an organization’s capacity. Ask them to put together a fundraising salary for a couple of years. Or ask several donors to put together a year’s worth of consulting assistance to build capacity. You might even borrow money to build your capacity… to hire an experienced and knowledgeable fundraiser or consultant.

Doing that will bring a fundamental change. It takes money to make money!

Jeff: What type of person is that professional? 

Simone: In my experience, small organizations don’t have separate fundraising staff. They typically have a highly effective executive director who is knowledgeable in governance, fundraising, general management, and finance. This executive director needn’t be an expert in your mission.

So find the money to hire someone to do that job. That is your best way forward!

But one last thing, and you might find this depressing, but I have to tell you. It’s possible your organization won’t survive what you’re going through right now. Maybe you can’t create the critical mass to ensure that the management work can be done by paid staff.

That’s the challenge of practically every single nonprofit organization: Do we have the money to pay for expertise to build our organization? If we hire a highly knowledgeable professional, can she help us build our orchestra? Even if she is marvelous and great, is our orchestra sustainable in our marketplace?

Just because you and I – or a few dozen or a hundred of us – think something is important… That doesn’t mean that there are enough people willing to give money and buy orchestra tickets.

Jeff: Yikes!

Simone: I only say this because it might be the case. Not every organization has a sustainable future.

But to circle back to your original question, you don’t really know if you are sustainable until you really get the management and governance of your organization right. And that means paying for professional help!

Nonprofit or for-profit… It’s all about the body of knowledge and experience and expertise. That’s what you need to keep in mind to run your organization for maximum impact… and maximum joy!

Jeff: Thank you Simone. We have some serious discussions in front of us!

Become a member of The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic and get access to Simone’s amazing workshops, Fundraising and Your Board: the Right Stuff — along with many other courses that can transform your fundraising life.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Jeff Brooks is one of my heroes! He’s got so much wisdom, and is so eager to share his knowledge and experience with others! Thanks for the above conversation notes. It does highlight a couple of areas for some boards on which I sit.
    God bless you, Jeff and Simone! Keep up the great work you’re doing to make our lives more profitable and less stressful.


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