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Motivating or Crushing Team Spirit: What We Can Learn from Nonprofit Boards

In training and placing business executives and professionals on nonprofit boards, I see which board environments motivate people to perform their best, and which environments crush the spirit right out of well-meaning, enthusiastic, and generous board members. You see, nonprofit boards are revealing environments because people are there voluntarily. Board members don’t have to be there nor do their best in order to earn a living. They are there primarily to serve their communities, to learn, for the psychic reward, and perhaps somewhat to build their professional networks.

In training and placing business executives and professionals on nonprofit boards, I see which board environments motivate people to perform their best, and which environments crush the spirit right out of well-meaning, enthusiastic, and generous board members.

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You see, nonprofit boards are revealing environments because people are there voluntarily. Board members don’t have to be there nor do their best in order to earn a living. They are there primarily to serve their communities, to learn, for the psychic reward, and perhaps somewhat to build their professional networks.

The main point is that nonprofit board members are most likely to give generously of their time, expertise, and money, including opening doors to prospective donors, if the board environment is friendly, supportive, enthusiastic, and appreciative. That tone is set by the leadership–the board chair and CEO of the organization, and has everything to do with how people treat each other on the board.

Think of the ways that people signal their support for each other and the organization, or, on the other hand, squash the spirit. Here are a few recent stories I’ve heard:

  • Same situation, but different reactions on two different boards: An email went out to the board announcing that an esteemed civic leader had just agreed to attend the annual fundraiser as one board member’s guest. On one board, members emailed back to each other with enthusiastic notes. “Amazing!” “Great!” Then others chimed in by inviting people of interest and cheering each other on. On the second board, similar situation, but the response to the initial email was silence. Dead silence. Which board would you want to be on?
  • On one board, the chair opens every meeting with thank you’s to board members who have contributed in the past quarter, showing appreciation and also signaling the variety of ways that one can be helpful in advancing the organization’s work. On a second board, the board chair rarely even makes it to board meetings, and no one at all acknowledges the few board members who use their business networks to raise money and other valuable services and assistance for the organization. On a third board, the board chair attends board meetings, but does his emails during board meetings from the head of the table. If you were on the second or third board in these examples, how motivated would you be to open up your most valuable contacts to invite them to do favors for the organization or to contribute generously?
  • On one board, the board chair made the lead financial contribution, both personally and from his company, and people from his company volunteer at the organization. On the second board, the board chair asked everyone on the board to contribute $3,000 to an event (some did and some didn’t), and then, in the end, he himself contributed only $200, and nothing from his company, even though he is a successful businessman. On the second board, how much would you stretch your family budget to give to this organization or ask your boss to contribute from the company?

In order to give and raise money generously, boards need to have a clear understanding of the case for support, a good website to refer to (and perhaps printed materials), and staff support. But, even more importantly, board members need to feel that they are part of a team that is working together to advance the organization in serving the community. It should be fun. Exhilarating.

There are many great causes, and many boards that will appreciate generous, enthusiastic members. Board members have choices, and can easily move on to other organizations where they can do good and feel good too.

Businesses that seek to retain the most talented employees can learn from these volunteer experiences how to build teams that are inspired and motivated to give their best and their most. High performers thrive in work environments where they engage with others to achieve the greater potential.

About the author

Korngold provides strategy consulting to global corporations on sustainability, facilitating corporate-nonprofit partnerships, and training and placing hundreds of business executives on NGO/nonprofit boards for 20+ years. She provides strategy and board governance consulting to NGO/nonprofit boards, foundations, and educational and healthcare institutions.

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