Book Review | Stop The Nonprofit Blame Game

In business school, most of my classes required group projects for the final. While it was a new experience to work in a team setting, I learned there were really three kinds of experiences. The first was magical; the group worked together harmoniously with each person bringing their expertise to the table. Ultimately, the final project was greater than the sum of its parts.

Then the second, where the group was held together by one or two people who ended up doing most of the work and/or pulling the other members together. It was very frustrating and maddening. I wanted to pull my hair out! The third is a mix of the two. Maybe most of the group was on point but then there was that one person who wouldn’t do their work or worse.

Years later, when I joined my first board, I realized that boards are a lot like group projects. In fact, they are what group projects are trying to instill in us. Sadly, my experience with a board resulted in me dropping out, frustrated, and angry that my voice hadn’t been heard.

However, when reading Hardy Smith’s Stop The Nonprofit Board Blame Game: How to Break the Cycle of Frustrating Relationships and Benefit from Fully Engaged Boards, I realized that my experiences are not unique or uncommon, but fairly typical.

His book gives step by step advice on how to end board member frustration (and vice versa — nonprofit employee frustration with board members), to make the board a positive experience for everyone, the board members, staff members, and most importantly, the nonprofit itself.

Who Should Read This Book?

Smith identifies two major populations that should read this book. The first are staff members who work with boards. That might mean the board liaison (if there is one), the top leadership, and major gift officers who work with board members. This book will help them understand what they need to do to create a positive board experience, including have clear expectations of what board members are supposed to do, communicate effectively, fundraising expectations, have measures in place to deal with issues on the board including board removal as a last resort.

Anyone who is a board member, or someone who is considering board membership, would benefit from reading the book as well. It will help them

figure out what how to communicate what they need from board members, what they need to hear from board members. It will help them understand where there may be breakdown in communications.

I would add that prospect researchers would benefit from this book. Since we are often asked to find prospective board members, write bios for them and current members, and even vet prospects, this book helps us understand a bit more about what goes on behind the curtain. Plus, the communication techniques might be helpful in our work with gift officers and nonprofit leadership, or even working with board members if our position requires it.

Where Does It Take you?

The book is divided into four parts: Break the Cycle of Dysfunctional Board Relations; Get the Right People; Create a Positive Board Experience; and Adapt to Meet New Challenges.

The first section explores the problem – why are boards not working for the nonprofits or for the board members? The section includes research that Smith conducted about the disconnect between boards and the nonprofits they purportedly serve. He determined that board members have a passion for volunteer work, but they are frustrated with their experiences. From his work, he explains that nonprofits systematically fail to inform board members about the expectations of their service, such as time commitment, fundraising requirements, etc.

The second explores the importance of finding the right people, or as Smith aptly puts it “recruiting” with purpose and process. Finding the right people at the right time for the right role is critical. To ensure a good board experience, nonprofits shouldn’t wait until the last minute to fill board absences; they should do the work well ahead of time to find the right people. (That probably means more work for prospect researchers, but I think we would all welcome that work). In other words, nonprofits

should recruit people not to fill a position that happens to be empty, but have a list of researched candidates for board positions at the ready.

Smith also talks critically about the importance of why prospective board members say yes or no. Listening is key!

The third section explores the board experience after the prospect has accepted the board position. While real communication is key to all of Smith’s recommendations, this section really dives into the many ways nonprofits and board members can work to make the overall experience a positive one.

What really resonated as a researcher was the section on getting to know your board members. Smith writes: “Understanding what your volunteer’s personal connections are to your cause and making sure those needs are being met will help your organization benefit from dedicated commitment.”

I think we as researchers would agree 100 percent! I also appreciate that there’s a chapter on the importance of diversity since that’s been a hot topic in nonprofits for several years.

The fourth section explores how boards need to embrace change. I particularly appreciate how he talks about how boards have to be intentional in changing the board. Intent is not the same as action. Board members and nonprofits have to move forward together to make the necessary adjustments in board recruitment, board expectations, meeting structure, etc. in order to make a positive experience for all people involved.

Is It Worth the Purchase Price?

Yes, this book is an important contribution to the world of nonprofits. It’s well worth a read though it is occasionally repetitive in its messaging. But given the disconnect between many boards and their nonprofits, the messages that Smith is trying to impart may need to reiterated until they are implemented. Communication, intentionality, forward thinking are all key parts of Hardy Smith’s message.

Hopefully armed with this knowledge, more board volunteers will have positive experiences that will enrich and deepen the work of the nonprofits that they serve.


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