Badass Your Board
It’s a familiar scene, we’ve all been there before…the monotonous monthly board meeting. Dress it up if you like, change the time, try a more relaxed setting, maybe even lure them in with free food and drinks; but the boredom sets in just as fast. Listening to the same reports, seeing the same 7 faces, hearing the same members express their same concerns, all while screaming inside your head for someone to actually say something. Sound familiar? Listening to monthly reports is a not a valuable use of anyone’s time, in fact, its quite the opposite. If you think your contribution of quietly listening to reports is helping anyone, it’s time to wake up.
It’s a simple proposition. The well-being of your community is dependent on your success as an organization. Your work is critical and meeting your mission has the ability to improve thousands of lives. There are precious few resources in your community and if you aren’t meeting your mission, those resources are being squandered. The work that so desperately needs accomplished is going undone because we have continuously lowered our standards. The time for accepting “well enough” is over. We can no longer afford to protect everyone’s feeling and expect to have an impact. We must ask more of one another, more of board members, more of city leaders and more of ourselves. We must set aside politeness for impact. We must focus on making our communities proud, everything else is secondary.
The decline of small-town life, the struggle to turn around rural economies and the dwindling sense of community is well documented and is having devastating impacts on us as a nation. The decline of downtown has led to the decline in civility and is one of the main reasons our politics have become so divisive. Local chambers of commerce are disappearing, too many tourism bureaus are stuck in the past, still printing off rest-stop flyers, and economic development officials get all the attention and funding, yet can’t seem to produce results. More than ever, it is imperative that there are effective organizations on the ground, in every community, bringing about meaningful change. Revitalization organizations are supplanting tourism, chambers and economic development offices in terms of importance because when they are meeting their mission, they are effectively doing the work of all the other organizations put together, and at a fraction of the cost. We should no longer be shy about saying it-revitalizing Main Street is the most important thing we can do for our communities.
We understand how important having a healthy downtown is to a community, in fact, there is little I believe holds more importance than fostering healthy and vibrant downtowns. The statistics support this conclusion as well. When a community has a healthy core, property values stabilize and increase, people experience a greater quality of life, additional money is retained in the local economy, tourism increases, the best and brightest don’t feel compelled to leave and people experience an elevated sense of civic pride. These are just a few of the benefits of successful revitalization efforts. Unfortunately, the significance of the work of many downtown organizations is not translating into action. When such organizations meets their mission, they have the ability to improve the lives of everyone in the community. The work of is far too important to go undone and it's time to take the work of downtown organizations much more seriously. It’s time we align our aspirations with our actions. It’s time we treat the decline of civic life and a sense of community like the crisis it is, because it is an absolute crisis. It’s time we badass our boards.
The road to revitalization apathy is paved with good intentions. Anyone involved in an effort to revitalize their community should be commended for lending their time and talents to the cause, but because of the importance of this work, we must demand more than good intentions. The proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” must have been written about apathetic non-profit boards. All the good intentions in the world don’t mean shit, if not coupled with effort. Good intentions never fixed a damn thing, so we must stop accepting them as enough. We must demand significantly more, and we need not be shy about our reasons. When a community organization is born, we set out with grand visions of how it will operate and all of the impacts it will bring about in the community, but then the realities of overseeing a non-profit organization set in. The work to revitalize then often becomes secondary to the challenge of managing a complex organization. Too many communities remain marginal, at best, because board members aren’t carrying their weight.
Where we typically fall short is adopting the opinion that any service is valuable service. Just because your neighbor is free on Mondays at 6pm, does not mean they are a suitable board member. Just because your softball teammate also likes to shop downtown, does not mean they are a suitable board member. It is through good intentions we lower our standards when seeking out board members. We don’t want be a burden, we want to limit burnout, we don’t want to appear to be a major commitment so we can expand the potential pool of board members. Unfortunately, by taking this approach, we set our expectations extremely low at the outset, and we know people tend to meet the expectations we provide for them. The work is too important to approach with low standards. When you consider all the impacts a successful revitalization organization has on a community, you realize only a badass board will do.
When we take the Tinder approach to board recruitment (swipe right, swipe right) we end up populating our board with people that were attracted to low expectations. These board members are under the impression that from the outset, very little will be asked of them or expected of them. They then have very little pride in their commitment or the organization as a whole. And why should they? What would you think of an employer that hired anyone that was able to get out of bed on a semi-regular basis? Here is the other thing we forget, burn-out doesn’t come from being asked to do too much, it comes from not accomplishing enough. I repeat, burnout does not come from being asked to do too much, it comes from not accomplishing enough. Would you rather dedicate some of your free time and talent to improving your community or sit in monthly hour-long meeting discussing the problems with parking? Badass board members give a lot because they get a lot in return. They understand that their commitment and effort will be rewarded with the satisfaction that comes from making an impact. The boards I have worked with that give the most of themselves, are also the most rewarded by their board member experience. The work is too important to take a low expectation approach to board member recruitment.
We need to take more of a match.com approach to board recruitment. We must start by setting our standards high and deciding what we want, not just what we will accept. We need to treat the recruitment process like it’s a job and not a volunteer post. If you want an amazing downtown, it has to start with getting a badass board to lead the way. Consider who your ideal board member would be. Set your expectations high. Be bold. Consider the job you are tasked with, consider your town's needs, and your wants for your town. If you are successful in meeting your mission, your entire community will grow and change and every person in it will benefit. With that in mind, seek out the badasses. The best teams, companies and universities set their expectations high, because they are seeking out the best people and expecting to get the most out of them. If you want to have an organization befitting of your mission and your community, you should begin to do the same.
While it is certainly easier to set expectations high when recruiting for a new board of directors, it is far from impossible to overhaul an existing board. It takes patience and the willingness to piss some people off. I have facilitated more than a few of these meetings where existing board members storm out of the meeting. While the intention isn’t to anger anyone, it’s certainly a great sign of progress. If setting expectations higher turns off some board members, you can be sure you are on the right track. It’s very important to remember as you consider going down this path of badassing your board, that everyone’s donation to the organization- be it time, talent or treasure, is appreciated. They should all be thanked for their service, but not every individual is right for a leadership position. These positions require a great deal more than the average person might be able to provide. These board seats require a badass. Someone who has the time and passion and leadership to steer the organization. Someone that consistently over performs. Someone that doesn’t sit on five other boards and complains about how busy they are. You know these people and they exist in every community. These are the badasses that you need to fill your board. And if this process sounds too hard to go through, just consider the cost of not doing it.