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I’ve talked about boards and their importance to an organization but a series of recent conversations have led me to reflect on the role of the executive director.

When do you know when your organization has outgrown your executive director? When is it time to urge them to give way to new thinking in order to revitalize the organization.

In many non profits, generally smaller organizations, the founder is the executive director and just like entrepreneurial businesses, there is a time when the this leader must adapt or step aside to allow their organizations to continue growing. It’s a healthy and natural process which if ignored, leads to struggle and stagnation.

All the conversations I had talked about the ED being the old guard, happy with the way things are, and seeing the role of the organization in a certain light. But the donations were declining, the membership unengaged and competing organizations taking the spot light. There was a need to review the value proposition and modernize the brand.

If the executive director is holding the organization back, generally the board is enabling this.

So the big question is – how to push for change. I’d say the core answer is courage. The courage to ask the tough questions, push for answers and seek solutions. That could be seeking out and bringing in new board or executive team members that have the skills and passion to affect change.  It could be creating new roles that act as change agents within the organization. It could be the employees banding together and speaking with one voice.

No one wants their organization to die, they just don’t realize how sick it is. Who has the courage to start the conversation?

I’ve been involved in a lot of events for student organizations lately. They all want the same topics presentation skills, entrepreneurship coaching, networking skills, and there’s biz case coaching or judging in there too.

While it is rewarding to give back and delightful when you can truly help someone, the experience is often a little lacking. But with a slight change in headset, I should think that all stakeholders would get a lot more out of these events and those involved will be even better prepared for the working world ahead of them.

Dump chaos for project management

Of course there is the chaotic approach to event management as it seems, like homework, the execution is usually a last minute blast of effort. How you clarify the event then arrange for speakers, facilities and do enough marketing all in 2-3 days is miraculous but seldom effective. Many of these events are conceptualized weeks or months ahead so a little classic timeline and project management would render far better results with much less uncertainty and stress, and leave a good framework for the team that will be responsible for the event next year.

Your audience is first, you are second

Perhaps it’s this rush on execution but I find that the focus is on getting the event done not on value to the audience. This is an issue of customer or member centric thinking. I would challenge student organizations to really understand and commit to their mandate and their audience. And it doesn’t hurt to understand their guest and sponsor needs as well. Understanding motivations and delivering a matching value will go a long way to securing success and an ongoing relationship.

An “ah ha” moment

I was advising a student group which was struggling with its reporting structure. It had the classic roles: prez, VPs, treasurer and so on. So I offered a little tweaking then asked “Do you really want to think outside the box?” They said “yes.”

I sketched a new organizational structure around the roles required for an events organization. After all, that what they were, organizers of student events, some social and others serious. Now they have alignment between their roles and the work they do.

Helping the next guy

And then there’s the issue of continuity. I acknowledge that It is a big challenge that student group executive teams change yearly. No sooner is someone up to speed then they are off, and often graduating so focused on with their career and not on campus.

Some groups have instituted a succession plan that cultivates executives. This way, learnings can be passed on and experience is built over a few years. Some groups are also better at choosing executives that are right for the roles they fill – logistics (events), sales (getting sponsors), marketing (promoting to their audience), etc. I realize that joining a student group in an executive role is viewed as an opportunity to learn and it’s good for the resume, but this should be balanced against the needs of the group and the audience it serves.

I was recently part of a professionally moderated salon (discussion) on the value of data analysis in deriving customer insights. I suggested that the topic was also interesting in a non-profit perspective if you look at donors or volunteers instead of customers. The moderator was equally interested in this direction and so the two of us are collaborating on a series of salons focused on the non-profit world.

The first salon is a discussion of the role of boards for non-profits. I have invited board members, executives from non profits and relevant consultants in this area. The format is informal with 12 or so people around a table for a couple of hours, with the conversation guided and light snacks provided.

I’ve been surprised at the uptake on this first salon with folks coming from across my city to a central location to be part of the conversation. Big causes and small, experienced board chairs and new board members are represented and I’ve been careful about the mix. Effective boards for non profits is a hot topic. I am hopeful that my follow up topics on volunteerism and donor management will be equally popular.

The interesting thing about working in this field is how fast and wide the invitation spread. It even reached some folks who do something similar and maybe I can just meld into theirs for efficiency.

So I write this not to solicit more attendees but instead to say, “it’s easy to stoke a conversation” and maybe we need more of these informal ways of sharing challenges and exchanging ideas.

Yet again I heard a story of “bored” members. Folks that get invited to sit on boards are brought in with good intentions and many board members carve out precious time on their calendars hoping to make a difference through board participation. But too often this participation amounts to showing up at infrequent meetings, only to be barraged by a series of briefings and then released for the evening.

It’s an information dump in one direction. Board members tend to get treated very well with due respect and often a nice meal or reception as part of the meeting. Board members use this opportunity to informally catch up with each other and members of the organization.

But my big beef is that these often very valuable resources are wasted. Management expends all its effort on providing briefings but doesn’t tend to solicit input, action or advocacy. Having a collection of great minds or powerful individuals on your board brings the halo effect of star power but there’s lots of experience, connections and other resources available from board members.

If you don’t leverage these assets, your organization doesn’t get the best value and board members don’t get the best experience, fulfilling their initial expectation to add this value.

So identify what you want from your board members then make a plan to get it. And my fellow “bored” members, challenge these organizations to make better use of the talent that’s available to them. You might have to help them figure out how to do this.

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