Talking A Person Into Serving On A Nonprofit Board

Years ago, I approached a young businessman about him possibly joining the board of trustees at the university where I was serving as president at the time. He was open to the idea but didn’t immediately make a commitment. So then and subsequently I did the “good presidential thing” and pitched, pressed, persuaded, cajoled and sold him on the idea of serving as a trustee.

Eventually, my friend said, “Yes,” was appointed to the board, and of course I felt good. I thought I’d done my duty as nonprofit CEO, helping to build our board with young talent.

But a couple of years later things weren’t going as expected. My young trustee friend missed meetings regularly, didn’t participate much when he attended, and otherwise seemed only peripherally engaged. So in some frustration I remember speaking privately to our young board member’s older relative, a leader on our board and a man with whom I enjoyed a close relationship. I said, “You know, we have Ben, but we don’t have his heart. I think I talked him into serving on the board before he was ready.” To which my wise mentor said, “I think you did, too. What’d you learn from that?” Well, I learned a lot.

First, I learned that you don’t want everyone on your board you think you want on your board. We identify individuals with attractive gifting capacity or networks and we think, “We need that person on our board.” And maybe they’re willing to serve, but people who are willing are not always able. Or we identify individuals with leadership skills and we think, “That person would take our board to the next level.” Maybe this is true, but people who are able are not always willing. In either case, the last thing you want to do as nonprofit CEO is press these people into service.

Second, I learned that my gift of gab, this innate and developed facility with the spoken word, can sometimes get me into trouble. I learned that I can actually motivate (manipulate?) someone into serving on a board of trustees. Not every nonprofit CEO is “a talker.” Thankfully we’re not all alike. But then again, to survive and thrive in leadership you’ve got to be able to speak the King’s English and most CEOs are pretty good at getting their thoughts across. We don’t realize or we forget that our words are powerful, that they can compel people rather than simply engage people.

I don’t think what I said to my young businessman friend was “wrong.” But in retrospect I do think I “wore him down.” I think he agreed to serve on our board more to get me off his back, or to please me, or with feelings of guilt, than out of a sense of passion for the mission. Insofar as this assessment is accurate, the university board appointed a new trustee who deep inside didn’t really want to be there. As president I carved a notch in my gun handle, so to speak, but no one was ultimately benefited by this appointment—not the university, not the trustee, not even me.

The end of this young trustee’s story was the inevitable. About four years into his service he quietly resigned and, worse, drifted away from further engagement or financial support for the university.

So I learned I didn’t want everyone on our board I first thought I wanted on our board. I learned I needed to present my organization and board opportunity with enthusiasm, while modulating it always with a respect for the person with whom I was speaking. I needed to consider his or her best interests, timing, decision-making process, maybe prayers, and “fit,” not just my goal to get the “Yes” and notch another victory.

The same, by the way, can be said for fundraising. Too many nonprofit CEOs “go for the gold,” frankly thinking pretty much just about the amount of the ask, the campaign target, and how good they’ll feel getting the gift. What we need to be thinking about, what is in the best interests of the organization and the cause and the donor long-term is what are the donor’s priorities, what are his or her interests and feelings, and what’s best for the donor? If we truly match organization vision with donor priorities we will in the long run attract larger gifts and, even better, loyalty-with-longevity.

In the last year, the story of our young trustee and my learning curve came back to me. I’m now serving another nonprofit organization as CEO, and with that role comes the usual necessity and opportunity to build the board. I’d met this semi-retired businessman, liked and respected him, admired his accomplishments and talent, and appreciated the fact he gave a substantial gift to the organization. Everything about him said to me: “He’s board material.” So I approached him with the idea.

My friend expressed openness and said he’d think and pray about it and discuss it with his wife. He also attended two board meetings about four months apart, getting to know board members and learning more about our organization. But still, he held back.

At this point my extroverted personality and goals said, “Push.” Thankfully, that’s when I remembered young Ben and his wise relative, my mentor, from years ago. What did I learn back then? Did it apply now? It did.

I presented to my friend the case for board membership, than I backed off. Over the next few months I interacted with him, including a visit to his home, but only once did I mention the board opportunity.

This gentleman is still my friend, is still very interested in our organization, is still open to considering further financial support, and is still not a board member. In fact I recently received an email from him saying he’d given it a hard look and finally concluded his other commitments didn’t permit him to give us what we needed at this time.

So should I be chagrined? A little maybe, because I continue to believe my friend’s service would strengthen our board, but not if he isn’t ready. So should I be chagrined? Not really, because we’ve won a new, likely long-term supporter who may someday yet serve on the board. As it is, he’s about as engaged as one can be without actually accepting a formal appointment. Consequently, the organization, our friend, and even me are all not better but “best off.”

Nonprofit CEOs are generally go-getters, and they should be. We just need to remember to dial it down sometimes in the best interests of our vision, goals, and constituency. Supporters who want and are ready to serve are the best kind. So take care not to talk people into things they aren’t genuinely ready to do.

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