What makes a board great?

Over the past few weeks, we have talked to leaders about how to build great boards of directors. Today, we’ll debrief what have we learned so far about building and nurturing great boards. We’ll be talking about: — How your board balances mission and fundraising — How you know you have the right people on the board — How to make sure your board is your best ally.


0:00:10 Cythia Rojas

Hi, everyone. Welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds. I am here with my Co-host, Pieta Blakely. Yay, Pieta it’s been a while.

0:00:13 Pieta Blakely

Good to see you.

0:00:38 Cythia Rojas

Yeah. But first we want to say it has been an extraordinary couple of weeks. We’ve been talking about all things, nonprofit boards, and we are not done with the series. But we are learning a lot. And so Peter and I thought this would be a great show to recap what we are learning and what is yet to come. So grab a cup of coffee and join us for the next 30 minutes as we discuss nonprofit boards.

0:01:05 CMM Jingle

0:01:24 Cynthia Rojas

Hi, again, yay! And we want to welcome our viewers across the country and around the world and also our listeners in Australia. Welcome. And thank you for listening to coffee time with masterminds. Pieta, how are you doing?

0:01:25 Pieta Blakely


0:01: 27 Cythia Rojas


0:01:34 Pieta Blakely

It’s been a busy few weeks. I was traveling. And I got back. So, I haven’t been on the show for a while.

0:01:44 Cynthia Rojas

Yes. And you were actually in Australia and New Zealand? Yeah. How’s our person in New Zealand? Is she still running?

0:01:49 Pieta Blakely

Oh, no, no, no, she just stepped down, Yeah, yep.

0:01:53 Cynthia Rojas

I did not know that.

0:01:58 Pieta Blakely

Bad news from New Zealand

0:02:01 Cythia Rojas

But, she had a baby in the middle of all of this.

0:02:07 Pieta Blakely

I think she just retired.

0:02:08 Cythia Rojas


0:02:10 Pieta Blakely

She has been Working very hard and she got retirement.

0:02:36 Cythia Rojas

Well, a lot of our leaders are tired. And you and I see this all the time, as we continue to work with organizations, I am experiencing right now are in the midst of a lot of change, not not pandemic change. But the change that happens after the chaos. Right, we know, we are never going to be the same again. And now we have to readjust. And I’m getting a lot of tired leaders.

0:02:43 Pieta Blakely

You know, I think it took us a long time to realize we were never going to be the same again.

0:02:44 Cythia Rojas


0:02:55 Pieta Blakely

You know, I mean, we went through like a good two years of pandemic still talking about when we go back to normal. When this is over, and we go back to normal, and now we’re kind of coming to terms with the fact that this is as normal as it’s going to be.

0:03:11 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah. And so many things, you know, what’s interesting is that because the change was long, it doesn’t feel abrupt. And I think I even have to think about what’s the new normal, right? Because it’s normalized.

0:03:13 Pieta Blakely

It’s going to all be normalized, Yeah.

0:03:27 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah. So like you and I, the other day, we’re thinking about doing a meeting in person. And we were thinking, well, people would have to travel in an hour and a half meeting now it becomes a three-hour meeting and people show up.

0:03:41 Pieta Blakely

You know, it’s been a huge adjustment to incorporate travel time. And figure out how to actually get different places. It’s just used for a long, long time.

0:04:16 Cynthia Rojas

I know, I know, it’s been really interesting, you know, we’ve been talking to leaders and board members, and also realizing that boards, like the hybrid meetings, are still reporting high attendance, high engagement. And you know the fact I haven’t asked anyone, but I’m sure it’s helped in recruitment. Because if you are an adult that cares for a family member or needs to be home at a certain hour, and you want to juggle both now you can.

0:04:21 Pieta Blakely

Yeah, It really has a lot of barriers to participating.

0:04:24 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah, yeah. I love that.

0:04:35 Pieta Blakely

So, as you’ve been talking to people over the last few weeks about building great boards, what in your opinion makes a board great? What’s the difference between a great board and an average board?

0:05:33 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah. Well, since you’re asking me, I’m going to tell you what I think. And then we have some slides that highlight some of the things that our recent guests have said, but in almost all the shows, I mentioned, this idea that and this is true for me, and I’m going to go out there and say it probably true for a lot of people, very few people choose to volunteer for something to feel lonely.

The reverse of that is that oftentimes, we are volunteering our time because we want to have relationships because we want to feel connected. And one of the most important things, in my opinion and making a board great is developing connections between board members, between the people we’re serving and board members, between staff, and definitely the leader of the organization.

So, in one of the shows I talked about, I know a leader, I know a couple of leaders that have said, they don’t have relationships with their board members, they don’t have one on one meetings, right. They only see the board members at a board meeting. And I thought, you know, I’m not sure I would get a lot out of that. Right? And what, how powerful would it be? If somebody called me into their office and said, Tell me about what drives your life? What is your purpose? Oh, my God, I would love that. I would love to ask you that, and how that engages people in a different way. So I’m thinking, engagement and relationships. What have you seen with board members? And I know you do a lot of evaluation work and may or may not be engaged with board members. But yeah, what has been your experience lately?

0:07:57 Pieta Blakely

So, one of the things that I know you’ve talked about with several of these guests is having the right people on the board. Right. But I also think about harnessing the right people, right? So, they can act a little bit like a peanut gallery, right, where they are reacting to things, but they’re just reacting. And I think that dynamic gets set up when they’re not really sure what their job is, or why they’re being asked to have an opinion about this thing. They’re getting information at the meeting that they’re surprised by and they’re reacting to it. And I think that’s really bad, right? They’re reacting. you know, 75% out of the fact that they got a surprise and 25% of the content. That’s not great. Like, that’s just the Executive Director not managing them right, in my opinion. And then, the quality of their input is not great or is not productive. Right? You know, it doesn’t move things forward.

0:10:54 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah. You know, Hardy Smith, the author of ‘Stop The Blame Game’ talked about recruitment should be the ED’s number one focus. And yes, boards usually have a committee that does governance or has oversight over nominations and things of that nature. However, the ED should also be looking out for who would best be fitted for their board. And so, he talks about EDs often taking a backseat, and blaming board members and board members often blame the ED and there’s a whole lot of blaming. but I will tell you, you know, I love a slideshow, good slideshow.

I wanted to make sure, so we’ve three episodes. And they have all been great. And they have all given us different angles. And I wanted to highlight some of the learnings that we’ve had so far. And so one of them, Hardy Smith, talked about this level of frustration, and you just mentioned that, Pieta, where no one is teaching these board members about their role. And I talked about how we don’t wake up and say I want to be a board member one day, you ask any 12-year=old what they want to be and no one is ever going to say a board member.

Somebody has to teach us what our role is, because it’s unique. And so it’s kind of like there is an assumption because you’ve asked me to be on your board. I know what I’m doing. So there’s a lot of frustration that’s going between the two EDs, I feel like I’m running the nonprofit. If I’m doing it by myself, and I have to engage board members, yes, yes. And yes, right, let’s just put it out there, it is part of your role. And if you’re too busy doing something else, you should be evaluating your tasks. Right?

And so, prioritizing that. And I think many of us can fall into that trap as leaders, right, we become leaders, because we were good at something, and we don’t want to let go of what it is that we’re doing. And then we find ourselves way too busy to do what we’re supposed to be doing, which is leading. And leading requires building relationships, inspiring, motivating, having clear vision and communicating that vision. If you’re not doing that, and you’re doing something else, you want to re-evaluate your organizational structure.

0:10:56 Pieta Blakley

Yeah, and that’s going to mean for a lot of leaders, that means giving other people the tasks that you have been doing.

0:11:06 Cynthia Rojas

Yes, absolutely.

0:11:08 Pieta Blakely

Yeah. Yeah

0:12:18 Cynthia Rojas

A lot of frustration. I’ll tell you, the next one, which really resonated with me is this idea of purpose. Right. And so when board members aren’t performing as expected, don’t blame the people, blame your recruiting process. So Hardy, and I had a really great conversation about this, because here’s what I’m finding Pieta, and tell me if you have experienced this. Also, we get boards, who are recruiting people, because they’re attorneys, or because they’re accountants. And we think that we’re going to be able to get some free advice. And sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t, right? Or we have a local bank that’s made a commitment to community relations. And part of that is mandating their staff to serve on boards. And for those individuals, this is a task and part of their work responsibilities. But guess what happens in that case?

0:12:38 Pieta Blakely

You know, this is a good example of activity alignment without mission alignment. You know, they might, they might do that task competently. But are they going to do it in a way that is really aligned and makes sense for the organization strategy?

0:13:24 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah. And so, I asked Hardy about this, because I see it all the time. And I said, Well, what do you do with those board members? And you know why he said, don’t recruit them. Don’t recruit somebody just because their job told them they have to serve on the board. And I’ll tell you why this is important. Because I know at least in New Haven Connecticut, there are some programs that are almost like a dating match, where they train a bunch of folks on their role as board members. And then they have an event and they bring nonprofits together to mingle and to meet each other and to do some recruitment. Well, you know, that’s a technical fix.

0:13:26 Pieta Blakely

Probably a good easy way to find.

0:13:27 Cynthia Rojas


0:13:29 Pieta Blakely

It’s rarely for the the right people

0:14:43 Cynthia Rojas

But it tends to be an adaptive problem. Right? And so the problem is much greater. And I remember talking to a board member recently, and I asked them what inspired him to be on the board, and he told me about this Mingle thing, and then said, Yeah, I used to go to the nonprofit when I was young.

It just seemed like a good idea. And I thought, wow,  like, Pieta, I love the arts. Right. I love going to the theater. But I don’t love the arts. I would be a terrible board member for a theater or nonprofit. Right? I’m not really sure that there’s enough life purpose for me there. I enjoy it. But I don’t think there is where my passion, my love rests in resettling refugees, like, my heart is there 100% And I want to get a bunch of emails from I want to be on the board. But that to me, feels like an alignment with my personal mission.

0:14:45 Pieta Blakely

Yeah, right.

0:14:58 Cynthia Rojas

So I don’t know just because you like the arts, does it mean you’ll be a good board member in an arts organization? I don’t know. I love ballet. I don’t think I should sit on the Orlando ballet board.

0:15:16 Pieta Blakely

Hell no, how to call, you know, And I do know people who sit on those boards because they love art. And they love dance. And they are amazing ambassadors for that.

0:16:01 Cynthia Rojas

Yes. It’s  how they see the world. You know, I see the world statistically, everything’s a mathematical equation. And I love talking to artists because they see the world in color.

They see it in movement. They see it in performance. And I’m like, wow, you mean, there’s no math in your head? And like, No, I don’t see it as an equation. And so I think passion and purpose. And we all have purpose, right, we all have something that we aspire toward. And we should think about volunteering our time. And serving as a board member can help that purpose.

0:17:07 Pieta Blakely

So, let’s talk about what board members do. Because, you know, here’s been like, I’ve had some experiences being on boards, and they can be pretty uncomfortable. And a lot of times the discomfort is lack of clarity, or even outright disagreement about what the board is supposed to be accomplishing. Right? Are we supposed to be really enthusiastic brand ambassadors? Are we supposed to be fundraisers out talking to friends and colleagues and getting money and resources for the organization? Are we supposed to be doers? Right? Because sometimes we’ve been invited to this board, because we know how to do a thing like program evaluation, or accounting or something like that. Or are we supposed to be advisors? Right on the big picture on the direction of the organization? Right. So how do you reconcile that? And how do you communicate to the board what their task is?

0:18:21 Cynthia Rojas

I love the question. And there are stages of development for boards. And yes to all of that, depending on your stage of development. So for new nonprofits, you often find yourself needing what’s called a working board. So those are your doers. Right? And it is often the board that organizes the event or manages the books, right, a board member is the bookkeeper. And so that happens when you’re in the very early stages, startup stages. And then as you begin to grow, boards start to need to look different. And sometimes, again, we need a fundraising board. And sometimes we need brand ambassadors. Right? And so, I mean, I have a strong opinion about fundraising boards. And I’ve talked about it a lot. But one role, and this is why purpose is so important, is to be an ambassador of the organization.

0:18:22 Pieta Blakely


0:19:41 Cythia Rojas

You know, and so whether you’re a working board, a fundraising board, or a governance board, you should always serve as an ambassador. That’s why passion is so important. And that’s why purpose is so important. Again, I could talk about the ballet, but that passion and that purpose is not going to come through. I can talk about refugees forever. Why is that work so important to me? Big difference, the big difference. So yes to everything you said. But it’s important as an ED to be clear of the developmental stage for your board.

You need them? Yeah, it’s a good question. Good question. I’m going to go to our next learning. All of this has been interesting. Engage your board members. I can’t say that enough. I know you and I just talked about it a little bit, but we had this grant from Haven Harvest, Oh My God! What an amazing story. She talked about her board, which was meeting like once or twice a year. And they didn’t even know if the nonprofit was still doing.

0:19:46 Pieta Blakely

Whether they were still there. Yeah

0:19:58 Cynthia Rojas

And they’ll be worried about not meeting for anything. For any negative reason. They just didn’t know they had to meet more often.

0:20:05 Pieta Blakely

they didn’t know what stage they were at. So they weren’t sure what they were supposed to be convening for.

0:20:44 Cynthia Rojas

So I asked her, I said, well, and not only that she increased their meeting and their engagement, she transformed them into a fundraising board. Oh, my God, every leader in this country wants to watch this video now. She talked about the first thing she did was put together, they have a lot of volunteers. They have over 100 volunteers in their organization. And she wanted to do a volunteer celebration to honor the volunteers. And she invited the board members and said, I just want you to show up. And they did!

0:20:45 Pieta Blakely

She did get excited.

0:21:13 Cynthia Rojas

She didn’t ask them for anything. So even if I’m nervous about it. Oh my God! what am I supposed to do? If you just want me to show up? I am more likely to do that. And then she strategically had conversations with them throughout the evening. And said, I think we should come together as a board and have a conversation. And they showed up. They did.

0:21:29 Pieta Blakely

They were probably been waiting for this invitation. They’re on the board, because they want to be connected with this organization. Right? They think the mission is a good use of their time and how they want to engage in their neighborhoods. So yeah, of course, they showed up.

0:23:01 Cynthia Rojas

And the mission of the organization is extraordinary. And they started meeting. And then so high engagement, people started to get to know each other, they started to get to know her. And then this takes us to our next slide, because this was her secret sauce. She taught them how to fundraise and gave them a simple, easy way to do it. She happened to use a platform, which name right now escapes me. But this platform had a series of webinars on how to engage people in learning about the mission of your organization.

Again, not asking your friends for money, which is what we think fundraising is, but learning how to talk about an organization’s mission and how to assess whether it’s aligned with someone else’s interest. Right? So she did that. And then the Portal also teaches you, fundraising all done on this platform. And you know, what started happening? friendly competition, Because they have a dashboard.  People can see, and the board members, because now they have relationships with each other. What they playfully trying to raise for the board members is another fundraising board! It’s amazing.

0:23:05 Pieta Blakely

It’s fantastic.

0:23:04 Cynthia Rojas

It was easy.

0:23:25 Pieta Blakely

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the whole thing is so uncomfortable. When you think that as a board member, you’re supposed to, you know, ask your friends for money, which you think, right, but I can only do that for so long. Right? What do I do the following year? Right? And you don’t have a script for doing it. Right? So yeah.

0:24:26 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah. So that was an amazing show. And what’s interesting is that Luis is the director of operations, she’s not the Executive Director. Yeah, and so the ED This is a two-person team. there’s a lot of work. They have over 100 volunteers, there’s a lot of managing of individuals and they’re in the food business. So time is always of the essence. But when she came on board she asked her ED, like what’s eating a lot? What’s causing you sleepless nights and so she said the board and the rest took it over. She took over that role. So you don’t have to be the ED it is preferable, but in this case, they work so closely together that the board actually sees them as a team, the ED and the Director of Operations right.

0:24:31 Pieta Blakely

They should be in the organization right?

0:27:34 Cynthia Rojas

And I met her ED at another event and I told her you know that Louis is very special and the ED just says she’s just heaven-sent and yeah just amazing. So there’s a lot of appreciation from the ED and then we had Shannon Danowsky, Shannon, if you’re in New Haven, or even if you’re in the State of Connecticut, you know, Shannon Danowsky.

She’s been doing this for 40 years. She has an amazing reputation and working with boards. She’s also an extraordinary fundraiser. So she’s been in it for a really long time. And she talked, we talked about transformation, what are boards needing to do now? And she said, you know, we’re moving away from that old traditional board of governance only to becoming a purpose driven board.

And so she cited these four principles from Board Source. And one is your board should be putting mission above all else. Right. So that should be number one. Are you meeting your mission? Are you reaching the population that you want? Or said that you would reach like board should really focus on that, two is to have a collaborative mindset. Work with other organizations, you should not be working in isolation. This is where boards can be very helpful. Right? What are the partnerships that we should have? look at your board as part of an ecosystem, and not as just an organization serving 200 people. But really, what does that look like? And this is where one ED can do all of that.

This is where the board can come in and serve as ambassadors. She talked about inclusion, diversity, and including every voice, and we spent a lot of time on that. That’s easier said than done. Many boards are now stopping at diversity. And we talked about how to be welcoming, right and accepting in different cultures. So what does it really mean to include a voice and she gave a really great example. And if you’re interested, you should look that up. And the last thing, which I thought was interesting, is authorizing your voice, and the voice of the organization should come from the people it is serving, or the people who are being impacted. Yeah, I thought, wow! Wow, that was really powerful. And she’s great. Really, really great. So one that I think we should have on again.

0:27:37 Pieta Blakely

Definitely, what else is coming up?

0:27:38 Cynthia Rojas


0:27:40 Pieta Blakley

What are we learning next?

0:28:48 Cynthia Rojas

So next, we’re going to have an ED who has quite a diverse board. And she has parents on her board, she has the individuals that she serves, she has black and brown individuals. And, you know, it’s another thing that leaders struggle with, how do I diversify, diversify my board, and she only knows a diverse board. So she’s going to talk about it from the lens of this is very natural to her. And so to have her on, we’re also going to have, so she’s Dr. Ferguson, what we’re going to have is Dr. Forrester who works at a nonprofit. She’s been here before on our show, where she has a really high engagement strategy with her board. Alice is all about relationships. And so we’re going to talk to Alice, how that has helped her. And she has grown her organization exponentially. And I am dying to ask her, what is the relationship between her approach to board members and the growth that she has experienced?

0:29:04 Pieta Blakely

Yeah, I will say, or I think this was the old thinking like, well, we can’t really diversify our board because they’re a fundraising board. Right. And so we have to, which is not true for multiple reasons.

0:29:35 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I have strong opinions about their fundraising thing, but we are also having Anne Yurasek come back. And so last week, we re-run an episode where she talked about the importance of strategic plans. She’s going to come back with a different lens, the role of the board in strategic planning. And so she’ll be joining us in a couple of weeks. So we’re still talking about all things boards. Pieta, it’s been so exciting.

0:30:16 Pieta Blakley

It’s been fantastic. Really, you know, I think what the big takeaway is, there’s no part of your organization that your board isn’t touching, right? And I think staff, including executive directors can be a little bit afraid of the board; like not knowing how to use them, not sure how to engage them and so they compartment analyze them. Right? And I think what we’re really seeing is we can engage them in a lot of ways. In almost every aspect of the organization without creating conflict, right without creating a situation where they’re doing your staff’s job.

0:30:39 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah,  Yes. Love it. Love it, love it. So we want to tell our viewers and our listeners to stay tuned to continue watching and listening as we continue this really important conversation, all things nonprofit boards. And with that we say Have a great weekend everybody until next week’s show bye.

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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