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Executive Director, Good Shepherd Services.
Credit: Volunteers of America
helping individuals and families in need

How Board Members Can Support their Executive Director: An Executive Director’s Wish List

As New York’s leading personalized board matching service, folks come to BoardAssist asking us for a board they can join where they can be a true agent of change.  Once placed with their dream board, one of the questions we are most often asked is “how can I support my nonprofit’s leadership?”  For an answer to this great question, we turned to nonprofit consultant Rhea Wong in this week’s guest post – a former Executive Director who had lots of great advice for our readers.  Thanks Rhea!


How Board Members Can Support their Executive Director: An Executive Director’s Wish List

As an Executive Director for over a decade, I recruited board members with a prospectus that laid out the responsibilities and expectations of board leadership.  What I realize in hindsight that the single most important responsibilities was not listed: to embolden and encourage the heart.  Board members, we know that you joined a board in order to make a difference in the world.  It is a noble and generous intention, and we appreciate your being on our team. Here’s how you can help the team to win:


How can I help?

Sometimes the most useful thing a board member can do is pick up the phone and offer a sympathetic ear or to show up to stuff envelopes.  Once, I had a board member show up unannounced with cupcakes for the staff and I just about cried because of such a simple show of generosity and kindness.  Working alongside the staff will also give you a unique perspective of what really happens at the office.


What is possible and reasonable given our resources (time, human capital, money)?

In the face of big, hairy, audacious goals, we can become daunted by the enormity of our task.  The flipside is that executives can get carried away and overpromise. As a board member, it is helpful to provide your perspective and expertise by asking what is possible to do given the resources on hand and what is the most important thing to focus on.  We need you to encourage us to think big, but not to kill ourselves by trying to deliver on unreasonable goals. We are counting on you to provide some balance and perspective because it’s in the Executive Director DNA to try to shoot the moon every day.


What can I do to help get the necessary resources to support our ambitious plans?

Too often, I’ve heard board members complain that they feel like walking checkbooks.  On the other hand, I’ve heard executives complain that their board doesn’t fundraise enough.  Both these perspectives occur when the directive to fundraise is too divorced from the meat of the work.  The funds are a means to an end. Board members need to hold each other and themselves accountable to doing everything they can to bring resources to the table in order to make great things happen.  It’s not raising money for the sake of raising money; it’s raising money to make important social change happen.


Just do it.

Take a page from the Nike playbook.  This sounds obvious, but if you say you’re going to do something, please just do it.  Executive Directors have enough to do so when we have to chase down board members to make the call, write the email, host the party, make the introduction etc etc it makes us feel like we’re rowing alone.  


Get curious.

All the executives I know move at breakneck speed.  Once we have finished one thing, we’re onto the next.  What board members can do is help us spend the time to slow down, reflect and distill learning for the next time.  Also, educate yourself and others about your organization’s issue. By embracing a culture of learning, everyone improves.


What is the most ambitious and feasible plan that makes the biggest dent in this problem we’re trying to solve?

It’s rightly assumed that Executive Directors are the subject matter experts in the room.  However, being the expert doesn’t always mean that we’re seeing the whole picture clearly. Sometimes, we are cursed with knowing far too much about our causes and it can be helpful for board members to ask the obvious question, to reframe the issue or to bring in expertise from other disciplines.  By avoiding groupthink and continually keeping the end goal in mind, we have an opportunity to continually innovate in pursuit of our mission.


As Executive Directors, we lead because we are called to it from our hearts, but sometimes the heart falters.  When we try to do something that has never been done before, it can be frightening and confounding. As board members, we depend on you to help us steer this ship through choppy waters, to help us see the rocks on the shore and to be our anchors during the storm.  You are essential in supporting us to be the bravest, best leaders we can be.


Rhea Wong is a nonprofit and leadership consultant with over 15 years of experience in the nonprofit space.  She advises on board management, fundraising, organizational development. Prior to her work as a consultant, she was the Executive Director of Breakthrough New York for 12 years.