The slightly tongue-in-cheek title of my presentation at the 2015 CASE Conference for Community College Advancement was “They Are Wonderful People, They Just Don’t Do Anything: Dealing expertly with passive, uninspired, underperforming, worn-out, and sometimes fossilized boards.”
In keeping with this lighter take on a serious subject I took an informal poll of the audience, asking which of seven paradigms of dysfunction most afflicted their foundation boards. The options were:
- They grandstand
- They are asleep
- They have a commander-in-chief chair
- They have warring factions
- Fundraising terrifies them
- Change is evil
- They don’t do anything
And the winner was… Fundraising terrifies them! And it’s a small wonder, I think, given that community college board members often don’t really know much about what is required of a board member when they agree to serve. They mostly have a vague notion about taking on a volunteer community involvement assignment that includes some meetings and attending a gala.
And that, largely, is our fault. The role of the community college foundation board is to secure resources in support the mission of the college. Yes, they govern as a board, but advancement—securing resources—is not governance per se. They need to know the ropes. In order to avoid semi-futile attempts to cat-herd a reluctant board toward functionality, it helps to foster individual comprehension of what it takes to be an effective board member. That is, they need to know what they are in for before they ever join your board.
You can’t just throw people on the board and hope it works out. And while the board has self-determining governing functions, it is the responsibility of the chief development officer and the college president to exert influence in collaboration with the foundation board leadership to constantly improve the effectiveness of the board.
As a corollary to that notion, you cannot leave a foundation board to its own devices. They need professional direction to direct their efforts to secure resources. They need to know that their primary role will be that of ambassador. That is to say, they will be asked to represent the mission of the college directly and personally to individuals in their sphere of influence who control community and personal resources. They need to understand that they will be armed with stories of student achievement, perseverance, and success. They will know a little something about the challenges, hopes, aspirations, and goals of the college.
So, again, what is the primary role of a college foundation board member? Ambassador to the community for a cause. That’s simple enough.
In the world of advancement, ambassadors cultivate donor prospects. This is often difficult for uninitiated board members because they fear that cultivation might damage their standing with peers, business associates, and friends. The notion of ambassadorship helps to clarify the boundaries and parameters of this endeavor. Ambassadors look outward. They open doors. They bring influential people together with the president, where it is the job of the president to articulate the mission and activities of the college with passion and authority.
We need to anticipate that board members who do not receive a comprehensive orientation to the role they are being asked to fulfill will be terrified of fundraising. We need to address that fear with a coherent set of relationship and messaging “cue cards” to imbue their interactions with their own sense of comfort and ownership.
Ambassadors must look outward, that much we know. And while I am happy to have a board member who is uncomfortable with cultivation if he or she is a major donor—because such leadership by example is priceless—we need to get the right people on the bus, and in the right seats, when it comes to advancement.
So if you find your board is terrified of fundraising, consider a formal initiative to address the root causes, and begin with recruiting the right people and giving them the gift of formal orientation to the role of ambassador. That should prove to be a good start on a neverending journey.