Modern nonprofit board governance — passion is not enough! | Chris Grundner | TEDxWilmington



can remember the day like it was yesterday I was working as a senior vice president JPMorgan Chase's credit card division and it just landed at the Philadelphia Airport after a business trip to Memphis Tennessee it was a Friday in September of 2002 as usual the first thing I did when I landed was call my wife and best friend Kelly to say that we had a close relationship would be an understatement we were inseparable in many ways we were like one person we had a knack for finishing each other's sentences and we had this thing about hearing each other's voices her voice was always the first voice I wanted to hear when I woke up and a last voice I wanted to hear before I went to sleep and vice versa that being the case I knew she'd be waiting for my call she knew when my flight was landing my flight was on time so I thought it was curious why she didn't answer I remembered that she had an MRI scheduled earlier that day and that she had been having some headaches and she had been having blurry vision and dizziness this was just a checkup but that appointment was earlier in the day I thought she must be done by now called at least four more times before I got to the car in the parking garage and still no answer at that point I started to worry all sorts of things started to go through my head maybe she got in a car accident or maybe someone broke into our home maybe my thoughts were interrupted the phone was ringing it was her I remember I was so relieved I want to answered the phone there was no response just silence so he said again honey is that you are you okay I'm worried about you again just more silence and then a few moments later her voice was cracking struggling to put the words together the words that still ring in my ears today I have a brain tumor that was the beginning for me the beginning of my first real journey into the nonprofit world I was your typical corporate guy at that point and didn't have a lot of exposure to nonprofit organizations Kelly and I had adopted a dog from the SPCA and certainly gave donations to various charities that friends and family brought to our attention oh and Girl Scout cookies I allow eating and buying Girl Scout cookies but I had no real understanding about how nonprofit organizations were managed or or certainly couldn't discern a well governed one from a not so well governed one I didn't know it at the time but I was going along a path towards finding out firsthand as a result of that fateful morning unfortunately almost two years to the day that Kelly found out she had a brain tumor she passed away and if my life came to a screeching halt when she was diagnosed it was turned completely upside down when I lost her didn't take long ago for my sorrow to turn into passion an action you see we caught Kelly's brain tumor late because we were uneducated about the disease and so was her primary care physician she thought Kelly was too young to have a brain tumor the truth is that anybody can get one we learned that the hard way and so did her doctor sadly Kelly suffered immensely from our ignorance and worse off we met so many other people in the hospital with similar stories a delayed diagnosis due to bad or lack of information about the disease this became my passion telling Kelly's story and doing the one thing that no one else in the country was doing raising awareness for brain tumors and educating the public and primary care physicians about the symptoms shortly after Kelly passed away I left my job at JPMorgan Chase and I started a foundation the Kelly Heinz Grunder brain tumor foundation and we created and launched the campaign that get your head in the game campaign and our goal was to help educate the public and get people diagnosed faster with that decision that decision to start that organization my formal training on non-profit board governance was officially underway I remember one of the first things I learned was that unlike for-profit boards where the board members are usually paid for their services nonprofit board members are volunteers I remember thinking at the time that this made a lot of sense given how budgets are tight at nonprofit organizations but I also remember thinking it creates a real conundrum for startup organizations namely how do you start a board what you need to do in order to get IRS charity status but not compromised at the same time and just fill the seats with anybody who will take them it's discouraging to see but I find a lot of organizations end up with a beggars can't be choosers attitude when they're building their board and the default seems to be passion if you have passion for the cause and even just a mild interest in being on the board bingo you're on the board this goes beyond startups though I see even mature organizations suffering from the same syndrome of putting just about anybody on the board that will come so long as they have passion if I've learned anything though in my deep dive into the nonprofit sector over the last decade I've learned this passion is not enough as I was preparing for this talk I wanted to come up with a visual representation of what I thought the building blocks would be for building an exceptional board the things that I found over the years to be key ingredients most of you are probably familiar with Maslow and is theory of motivation and its hierarchy of needs which is often portrayed in a in the shape of a pyramid if you look at that pyramid you'll see at the bottom are the most fundamental needs things like sleep and water and food and shelter at the top is self-actualization which is often described as an understanding of what your full potential is and then actually going about and achieving it to borrow a phrase from the US Army self actualizations being all you can be that's the goal to put this in parallel for nonprofit board governance I would set forth that passion for the mission is the equivalent of the bottom rung of the pyramid it's essential for board members to have but it's not everything certainly not enough to help the organization get to the apex of success or to be all it can be or even to sustain foster sustained long term sustainability for that matter I would also set forth it's showing-up regular attendance at board meetings and coming to the organization's events putting some skin in the game and making a financial condemned contribution to the organization on a regular basis those are other things that are essential but they alone are not enough they form the basis from which solid governance can be built but they are not enough I think standards come next first making sure that board members understand their role their fiduciary legal responsibilities and then implementing best practices like having job descriptions for your board members and term limits and annual reviews of your board members and then creating a continuous learning process for the board in my opinion these are critical components to achieving board excellence but I've learned that the only work if you hold people accountable to provide stable leadership a board must insist that form Fowler function and that the structures and practices transcend any one individual or group of individuals on the board this is to say the rules apply to everybody evenly regardless of how much you donate to the organization or how influential you are in the community I see far too many organizations playing favorites with their board members changing the rules to accommodate people the team and the mission suffers as a result when things start to move forward the next level is when there's an intentional focus on diversity of skill sets and diversity of perspective it's certainly true that your board member will go your board meetings will go a lot faster if you have like-minded people sitting around the table but the the truth is it's better to have a 360-degree perspective and a broad set of skill sets around the table and board members who aren't afraid to challenge the status quo and to prompt critical discussion in my opinion boards that actually create a culture of constructive conflict where they infuse purposeful disruptions when things seem to get too routine those are the successful ones and also it's been said that nonprofit organizations successful ones are mission based and constituency driven I couldn't agree more and this speaks to the point that you must make sure that the perspective of the population that you're serving is adequately represented on your board finally planning for turnover and being thoughtful about the future generation of board members that will carry the torch long after the current board is gone succession planning or transcendent leaders if this is the top of the pyramid I've seen far too many organizations that that are way late and lose significant momentum in times of transition especially when that's an unexpected transition sure a change is hard for some ones it's going to argue that and it takes time but with proper planning it doesn't have to mean total derailment or completely starting over having board members potential board members in the wings and grooming and mentoring the ones that are there to take on greater levels of responsibility that's how you ensure success during unexpected transitions so there's our pyramid I think there's a lot of material there I think if we try to sum it up we can do it in three points the first one if you're a nonprofit organization don't have a beggars can't be choosers attitude raise the bar for your board members make sure to evaluate them on a regular basis if they're not getting it done move them out probably sounds really harsh but you can't afford to let unproductive or disruptive board members linger the mission must always come first if you yourself are a board member hold the organization accountable if they're not living up to their end of the bargain and getting you information in a timely fashion challenge them engage them if they don't want to change move on find another organization that could benefit from your services but it's a two-way street you have to hold yourself accountable to if you're serving on multiple boards and you find that your time is overly divided I would challenge you and encourage you to reconsider and instead to pick the one or two causes that you really care about and focus your efforts there we all know that situations in life change people get new jobs and move to different cities people have children people get married something happens in your life that compromises your ability to do your job on the board take yourself out of the game it's the best thing that you can do for the organization and the cause that you care about and do so right away don't linger and finally if you're thinking about serving on a board make sure you understand the organization's expectations of you and make sure you and your family because it really is a family commitment make sure you're all in before you say the truth is board governance in today's modern day and age is more important than it's ever been before in my opinion nonprofit organizations are have become the backbone of our society they're the ones at the crux of social action and change they're all connected by the common mission of improving quality of life we need them at the same time we know many nonprofit organizations are struggling they're trying to meet increased demand for services with fewer and fewer resources what this means is that board members must provide steady stewardship and bold leadership now more than ever I'll say it as succinctly and strongly as I can serving on a non-profit board is serious serious business and it shouldn't be entered into lightly and what that means serving on a board might not be for everyone the good news though and there is good news is that if you do choose to serve in this way and you do choose to follow your passion it can be one of the most meaningful and rewarding things you'll ever do it's hard work for sure but it's wonderful work at least it has been for me I think in many ways this was Kelly's final gift to me prompting me to use my god-given skills to help others to give back to serve I now realize that's my purpose that's my calling that's what makes me happy and while I think about and miss Kelly every day I know she's smiling down at all the positive things that have happened as a result of her passing not only for me personally in a way I've embraced life and prioritized life in a whole new way my beautiful wife Susan and our two boys but also for the brain tumor caused through the get your head in the game campaign and now in my current role at the Delaware Alliance for nonprofit advancement for the nonprofit sector here in Delaware and the communities served by our member organizations for sure it was tragedy that brought me to the table that uncovered my passion to serve my hope though is that its opportunity that calls all of you the chance to make a real difference in an extremely important way for the causes that you care about most you

17 Replies to “Modern nonprofit board governance — passion is not enough! | Chris Grundner | TEDxWilmington

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  2. Very well stated and delivered with passion and purpose. A must see for anyone looking to join a board and those who currently serve the nonprofit community.

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