I’m a sucker for advice columns. It started when I would leaf through the women’s magazines during my mother’s weekly trips to the beauty shop, not to be confused with spas, salons, hairdressers, or anything else other than the retrofitted basement of a split-level ranch house on a wooded lot down a two-lane road in the suburbs.
Amid the scent of Aquanet and the radiant heat of bonnet-style hairdryers, I read about lovelorn teens, monstrous mothers-in-law, etiquette disasters, bratty grandchildren, and other domestic situations that probably sailed right over my elementary school-aged head. The anonymous advice columnists dished out what I now recognize as a salty mix of cliches, quips, and a dash of practical advice. At the time they seemed like the smartest, most together people I have ever seen, or at least read about.
Some of that advice made its way into my psyche only to emerge now as stay bits of questionable wisdom such as no white shoes after Labor Day and jello salads can bring a family together over dinner.
But on a more serious note, here’s what I really learned.
Other peoples’ problems are easier to solve.
With more than 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, I am honored when grant writers, fundraisers, students, executive directors, and board members come to me for advice and/or hire me to help them sort out challenges and barriers they encounter to working most effectively with the communities they serve. Each community, workplace culture, and surrounding circumstances differ from agency to agency, but most challenges boil down to raising more money and improving communication—not necessarily in that order.
How easy is that, right?
Easily said, but harder won.
Of course, better communication and increased funding would solve most of our problems at work and home. It’s one thing to dispense advice, but quite another to dig in, listen, learn, and take meaningful, effective action The complexities and nuances of actually doing these things are where the true work begins.
Working well with boards of directors continues to be one of the pain points of most nonprofits I encounter. Early in my career, boards seemed like secret societies issuing edicts from afar. As I took on more leadership roles, working directly with board members was often deeply rewarding and satisfying as we explored new partnerships, identified more revenue opportunities, and pulled together for the common good. Occasionally, board members belittled me, undermined fundraising efforts, or completely checked out from their responsibilities.
Through trial and many errors, I learned to navigate the sometimes rocky roads of board partnerships through—you guessed it—making sure that I communicated clearly and frequently in ways that fit board members’ work styles and best served the organization. This included helping facilitate and design annual board orientations, working in advance and in between scheduled board meetings to build consensus, share progress, and discuss impediments.
Over the past 10 years, one of the best ways I learned to better work with boards is to serve as a board member myself. 2021 marks the end of my three-year commitment as a board member of the Grant Professionals Association (GPA). Before that, I served on the board of the Grant Professionals Foundation (GPF). I remain honored to have helped further the grants profession in some way through these volunteer opportunities, and they each taught me a lot about time commitment, fiduciary responsibilities, group dynamics, persuasive speaking, volunteer recruitment, and much more. All of which improved my skills and empathy for consulting with nonprofits and improving their board effectiveness.
As a grant professional, fundraiser, director, or “other duties as assigned” person in the nonprofit world, consider volunteering for board service as a way to give back, but to also understand the view fully from “the other side of the table.” This insight will help you educate, motivate, and cooperate with board members. Need more inspiration? Check out co-host Amanda Day and I detailing and ranting (a little) about our experiences working with and serving on boards in this episode of the Fundraising HayDay podcast: Tips for Helping Boards Succeed (podbean.com).
Consider Fundraising HayDay a free, audio version of an advice column to finding more resources to do more good things, delivered with expertise, humor, and occasional cheesy sound effects. Hairspray sold separately.
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