Know the difference between a letterhead board and a fully-engaged board

Know the Difference: An RSC series on discernment and better decision-making.

Letterhead boards look great on paper, but that’s never enough.

Even high-functioning organizations with equally evolved boards can fall into a trap when empty board seats need filled. Boards too often evaluate a potential member for the glow they give the letterhead and the donation they will likely give, not how they match the varied priorities of the organization and its strategic plan. Undoubtedly, attracting and developing contributors from both the board and the community is a priority in your strategic plan, but not the only one, and ideally not even the most important.

We’ve written previously on the essential nature of a sound strategic plan and you’ll find a deeper dive here. Quick overview: It should span three years (some boards develop five-year plans but that’s too long given the accelerating pace of change) and it should identify strategies, tactics, and metrics of success across every facet of the mission: audience development, community engagement, artist recruitment and support, and of course donor development and financial steadfastness.

And, your strategic plan draws the blueprint for the board you become.

A sound strategic plan is really a statement of how the power of your people will leverage the power of your money. So, hold your plan next to your board list – and next to your prospective board members – and make an honest assessment of where you are underpowered. Those gaps are where you position people who have the skills and passion that sync up with the need. Your plan guides you as your set accurate expectations with prospective members and it shapes how you orient them as they join the work.

Let’s stop here while you push back, and say what we know you might already be thinking… “but fundraising IS our largest gap, so it should drive our board recruiting.”

Well, yes and no.

Raising money will always be a core responsibility of the board, but it shouldn’t merely default to the board members reaching deeper into their pockets, and it shouldn’t aggregate exclusively to the fundraising committee. In fact, when it comes to this essential work, let’s change the vocabulary to reflect its importance. In a high-functioning board guided by a sound plan, every board member has a role in the process of fundraising, but a distinct, smaller group has the responsibility to participate in the act of fundraising. This means every board member is expected to do the things that eventually lead to a donor conversation. Learning and sharing the message with their networks. Bringing new people to the audience and intentionally stewarding those relationships to personalize the value of the organization. All of this and more are preludes to an ask, without actually making the ask.

Create a board that performs and a board that fulfills

When organizations build their board to advance the plan, they also connect people with roles and opportunities to do meaningful work. By setting clear expectations from the first conversation, you’ll also filter out those good people who are generally interested in “charity work” but have few identifiable skills for a board to leverage. Clear and specific expectations also puts potential “résumé padders” on notice that you expect them to perform, not just preen.

Your organization has a specific, unique and meaningful purpose. Make sure that each board member is recruited and treated in similar fashion, with a specific, unique and meaningful role.

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