Training Tips for Nonprofit Boards
Training is an important step in building a strong board of directors. In the winter 2015 issue of Saving Land, a publication of the Land Trust Alliance, our own Marc Smiley offers a few of his favorite tips:
- Look at the big picture. Many nonprofits put a lot of energy into recruiting their board members, but they don’t follow up with further board development. Building an engaged, capable board takes a five-step process: recruitment, orientation, training, evaluation, and recognition.
- Use the experts you’ve got. You don’t always have to bring in an outside expert. Someone on your board or staff might be just the right person to lead a session. You can also invite people from other nonprofits, so you both learn and build partnerships. Just remember, training is a skill. If your expert is not a skilled trainer, consider pairing him or her with someone who is.
- Make conferences go further. These gatherings offer rich opportunities to learn. But most organizations can’t afford to send more than a few board members. So ask the ones who go to lead a training session when they get back, sharing what they learned.
- Teach what people want to learn. Board members want to learn about topics that are immediately relevant to their organization — information they can put into action. Both internal and external topics are useful — that is, learning how to do the job of a board member and learning how the land trust does its job — so strike a balance. And don’t get overly technical. Your board members want to learn from experts, but they don’t need to be experts themselves.
- Keep it coming. You don’t just train the board once and you’re done. Ongoing training is part of your commitment to building a great board.
For more resources on building an effective board, check out our Resources page.
Land Trusts and the Challenges Ahead
Editor’s Note: The following post is adapted from remarks made by Wes Ward, Senior Advisor for The Trustees of Reservations and a consultant at Solid Ground, at the Sudbury Valley Trustees’ annual meeting in October 2014. While most relevant for our land trust and conservation clients, we hope all of our readers will appreciate Wes’ perspective on “big change” and the next 25 years of conservation work.
Since joining the Massachusetts conservation 33 years ago, I have admired your work as a regional land trust. Your organization is one of the very best land trusts in New England; you have been focused on important work, you have been frugal and well-managed, and you have been a leader in working with partners and advancing the cause of conservation and stewardship across Massachusetts and beyond.
As I downshift from a long career primarily at one organization to life as a part-time conservation advisor, gardener, and grandfather, I have been thinking about the land trust movement, the challenges ahead, and the role of regional organizations like yours.
My thoughts are not radical, in the incorrect sense of wild and crazy, but they do go back to the roots of conservation as much as they attempt to predict the increasingly unpredictable future. Yogi Berra said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” But if we are to believe the most recent forecasts for sea level rise and the extent of expected inundation in Boston, we know that Yogi’s quip is wrong when applied to the effects of climate change. The recent Boston University maps in the Globe showing the extent of predicted inundation from sea level rise could overlay almost precisely the maps of Paul Revere’s Boston – back to that small turkey head on a long, thin neck.
Before I get to my subject, a caveat: just as there are several overlapping environmental movements, there are several parallel, overlapping, and intersecting land trust movements. For example, The Trustees of Reservations is as much a historic preservation organization as a traditional land trust. Some in our movement save international biodiversity; others create and manage community gardens in bustling urban neighborhoods. Many rely on conservation easements, while others see them as trouble and would rather embrace their properties as outright owners and stewards.
While we all share the same box of tools, our activities and priorities range widely. As a result, generalizations about land trusts are bound to be somewhat true and not so true.
With that understanding, I’d like to suggest a few rough ideas about the next 25 years of land trust work. The challenges we face are threats to our organizations only if we think narrowly and fail to perceive opportunity and adapt to change. Big change.
- Demography and geography. If the current “back to the city” trends continue, conservation in many communities may take on different meanings. Without the pressure of relentless sprawl, land trusts may rediscover their historical ancestry in the 19th Century village improvement societies – more occupied with community stewardship in the broad sense than with conserving specific parcels of land; the supply of undeveloped land being quite limited in the older suburbs as well as in reviving cities. This shift from conservation toward stewardship will require some hard choices in setting strategies and priorities. But stewardship and engagement will attract and hold a devoted constituency as well as protecting land. Will this shift happen tomorrow? No, it will be gradual, but it is already beginning to happen in our area.
- Diversity. Land trusts must represent their communities, but many by geography or choice cling to fairly homogenous slices of their towns and regions. The 2010 census has some lessons for all of us in Massachusetts: both our cities and suburbs are becoming more diverse ethnically, culturally, and racially. We all need to draw our constituents, supporters, volunteers, and visitors from the growing diversity in our changing communities. As we are seeing elsewhere, in the years ahead our communities will elect an increasingly diverse leadership at all levels. We cannot assume that conservation will remain a priority for our communities and our legislators unless our cause continues to be broadly and strongly supported across our state and the country. For that we need allies and leaders across the racial and economic spectrum.
- Climate change. A visibly pregnant participant in the Peoples Climate March in New York City in September carried a sign saying, “We are Burning our Kids’ Inheritance.” If that sign was meant to make us uncomfortable, it served its purpose. We are in this together; “we have met the enemy and it is us.” Over the next 20 years, climate change deniers will be hard to find. Many will have become climate change recriminators and adaptation resisters: “You can’t dig a canal through my historic neighborhood!” It’s the way it is in American politics; perhaps it’s just human nature, as Noah learned. First, deny the need for change; than resist it in legislature and Congress, until . . . when?As a consequence of climate change, we in the land trust movement will need to adjust our strategies and priorities at all levels. For example, removing houses and other development from flood-prone areas, and sculpting those ten-foot berms around our cities, may become higher public priorities than protecting forests, much of which may be enrolled in long-term carbon credit programs anyway. Wind and solar farms, energy storage facilities, and new power line and pipeline corridors will inevitably change the face of our landscape and threaten its visual and ecological integrity. Land trusts must and will defend the land they’ve protected, but will do so more effectively if they are part of the public conversation early on.
Whatever the challenges, organizations like yours will respond, adjust, adapt, and thrive. Why? You have the relatively high ground. What I mean is that you have a long history of working with your communities, adapting to an unstoppable flood of suburban development, and protecting an environmental infrastructure that is increasingly appreciated by the people you serve.
You have a vibrant future because you represent the very best in your communities, you educate through the day-to-day performance of your mission, and you have worked broadly to strengthen the Massachusetts and national conservation community. You also remember your roots (well, your origin) in the paddle-strokes of Henry David Thoreau, a true naturalist, who raised eyebrows wherever he went and left an ethic and a legacy for all of us.
One of your founders, George Lewis, said it well in his book, Fifty Years of Conservation:
The good news is that much of the countryside surrounding these handsome new SVT properties is already protected public space. As time goes by, one can anticipate a steady development of trails and other recreational uses, while at the same time realizing that workplaces are part of the landscape. As future users approach this island of green, they must pass through some of the most intensive commercial and industrial development in eastern Massachusetts and might conjecture, ‘This is how it ALL might have been.’
I am proud to have worked with you over the years. Here’s to your continued and growing success in the years of challenge and change ahead.
Investing funds for the future – What is the responsibility of nonprofit boards?
Three years ago, a nonprofit we know and love received a generous, six-figure gift to its endowment fund. This created a happy dilemma for the board of directors: what to do with all that money? But everyone was still rattled from the recession, and the market remained volatile. Patting themselves on the back for managing risk, the board deposited 100 percent of the funds into short-term CDs. The thinking was, “We’ll wait to invest this money until the market begins to turn around.”
Well, the market did turn around. So what did the board do? Nothing. No loss, it’s true, but also no gain or improvement in the organization’s position. The failure to act is still an act: it’s a decision that has consequences. Perhaps more importantly, it has opportunity costs.
Managing a permanently invested fund, or endowment, always pushes the question of risk tolerance. At every extreme, the issue is easy – neither the shoe box nor the lottery ticket is appropriate.
All nonprofit boards hold fiduciary responsibility for the organizations they lead. That entails a lot of things, including the ability to assess and manage risk. There are many tools available to help, including financial policies and procedures and financial plans that include an honest analysis of time horizons and current and future uses of funds.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Smart nonprofit leaders think about managing their finances just as strategically as they think about managing their staff, systems, and office space. You can make your financial assets work for your organization.
- Investing is a long-term business decision. The choices you make today are critical to the sustainability of your organization over time. Successful groups develop a team comprising employees, board members, and trusted financial professionals to make investment decisions on behalf of the organization.
- Groups need to be deliberate about adding people to the board who know something about assessing and managing risk, and investing.
- It helps to have an up-front conversation about your appetite for risk and your short- and long-term investment goals, so that your investment strategy fits your organizational culture.
The bottom line? When it comes to managing their financial resources, nonprofits have to strike a balance between being too cautious and too aggressive. The payoff is that smart investing has the potential to make scarce resources go a heck of a lot further.
- Bill Long, Helena, MT
Singin’ Sagebrush Sister
Consultants get up in front of groups all the time, but we don’t often stand behind a microphone with a guitar in hand — wearing our fanciest cowboy boots and party dress — open our mouths, and yodel.
This consultant who moonlights as a Texas swing guitar player hasn’t had quite so much fun in a long time.
On Saturday night, April 5, the Sagebrush Sisters took the stage at The Vue in downtown Corvallis, Oregon. We entertained a couple hundred (ish) friends and supporters of four fantastic mid-Valley conservation nonprofits at Roots to Rivers, a new joint fundraising event. Sharing the benefit of the event were:
- Calapooia Watershed Council, a community organization working to promote and sustain the health of the Calapooia Watershed in the southern Willamette Valley. A fun tidbit about this group is its location in Brownsville, Oregon, which is the setting for the fictional town of Castle Rock in the film Stand by Me.
- Greenbelt Land Trust, a local land conservation nonprofit focused on protecting ecologically, agriculturally, and historically significant lands in the mid-Willamette Valley.
- Marys River Watershed Council, cultivating strong neighborhood ownership of the watershed’s health and voluntary land stewardship and restoration from Marys Peak to the Willamette River, from forests to farms, prairies to ponds, and backyards to school yards.
- Ten Rivers Food Web, working to ensure that the Ten Rivers food shed will be robust in the face of ecological and economic pressures. This means that at least 30% of the food consumed in Linn, Benton, and Lincoln counties will be locally grown, processed, and distributed.
The two watershed councils and the land trust are all Solid Ground clients. We’re so proud of their amazing work and happy to partner with them as they succeed and grow. Thanks to all the wonderful people who came out to support the difference these groups are making in the Willamette Valley!
- Allison Handler, Portland, OR
Leadership: Throw out the hierarchy and look within
Who are the leaders within your organization? Are they so named simply because they “manage” people, or do they have other qualities that have nothing to do with title and rank? More importantly, can leadership be learned?
It sure can.
My colleague Jim Morris and I see this all the time in the leadership institutes we facilitate for clients like the City of Portland. Like many organizations today, the City understands that formal authority is not the only model of leadership. People at all levels are leading task forces, advisory groups, or multi-bureau work groups whose members may be located in different places and where formal line authority is diffuse, distributed, or absent altogether. What we’ve found is that leadership is the ability to influence others and affect change – regardless of one’s position on the organizational chart.
The Institute is modeled on the research of James Kouzes and Barry Posner, who found that effective leaders across the globe employ very similar practices—all of which can be taught and learned. They are:
- Inspire a shared vision. From shared goals to a shared vision, effective leaders are able to help others see the end point – what everyone is working together to build.
- Model the way. Effective leaders walk their talk, even when the going is tough. They earn trust because they consistently demonstrate their values and principles.
- Challenge the process. Leaders are bold. They ask tough questions and aren’t afraid to point out the “elephant in the room.”
- Enable others to act. Rather than go it alone, leaders invite participation and encourage others to develop new skills and knowledge.
- Encourage the heart. Perhaps most importantly, leaders understand that leadership is all about relationships. So they work on a personal level, recognizing others for their contributions.
The Institute is a bonding experience for participants. One recent cohort had sweatshirts made that displayed their group’s name – High Impact Leadership Team (HILT) – next to the hilt of a sword. But its primary impact may be in how it shifts people’s self-perception. One emerging leader who had been puzzled by her nomination to the Institute had this to say about her experience:
“Now I see that what I’ve been doing is a form of leadership. I have the power to help others be more effective as we work together. It [the Institute] was an awesome experience to work with everyone and see how differently we approach our leadership possibilities.”
Jim and I learn more about leadership with each Institute we lead. Each one confirms our belief that leadership is a form of performance art, and the instrument is self.
- Arty Trost, Portland, OR
Four steps to becoming a strategic storyteller
Research tells us humans are hard-wired to be storytellers. It’s our default method for giving meaning to the otherwise random events of life. And hearing stories is one way we simulate situations and learn before actually experiencing them. Similarly, stories invite others to participate and emotionally engage with the messages or morals they convey.
This more recent understanding of the dominant role stories play in human interactions is why so many communications advisers are urging organizations to embrace storytelling in their marketing, outreach, and fundraising.
From where I sit, this is sound advice. But it begs the question: Out of the dozens of stories potentially at our disposal, how do we decide which ones to develop and share? In other words, how can we be strategic about the stories we tell, rather than simply grasping for any good-sounding tale that comes along?
Here are four suggestions:
1. To be a strategic storyteller, be a strategic organization.
Many organizations fail to pause from the daily grind to take a long look at their mission, identity, goals, and measurable impact. Want to decide which stories to tell? Start by making sure your strategic plan is up to date. The first step in strategic storytelling is knowing where your organization is headed and why, and whose support you’ll need to reach your destination. The stories you choose should be those that move you closer to your most important goals by moving others to lend their support. And remember, during the planning process, stories are bound to surface. Don’t lose them.
2. It’s not about you.
That’s another way of saying, choose stories about “them” — constituents, donors, volunteers, partners. One of the ways people decide what to do in a given situation is to ask what would individuals “like me” do? Research tells us we are not purely self-interested actors. We often want to know not just what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for my group. (See the terrific book, “Made to Stick,” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.) Select and tell stories that feature members of the groups you want to engage. Help your audience connect to what their peers believe or do relative to your organization.
3. It’s all about you.
That’s right, it’s not about you, except when it is! That means knowing “who” you are as an organization — your identity or brand. What makes you distinct among organizations similar to you and what makes you relevant to the people who matter to your success? Strategic storytelling means selecting stories that are consistent with who you are and how you want others to experience your organization. What do you stand for or promise to your stakeholders? Be clear about this, deliver on your promise, and tell the stories of people who’ve benefited from their experience of you.
4. Be real.
No organization is perfect. Making mistakes comes with the territory. More important is how you have responded to your mistakes. What are the stories that don’t have happy endings in your organization? Don’t be afraid to tell them from time to time. It will build trust and help others learn from your mistakes. And who knows how many happy endings will follow from there?
- Rich Bruer, Portland, OR
Sharing the Love
“Donor”? “Member”? How about “BFF”?
Many nonprofits struggle with how to describe their supporters: Members? Donors? Something else? In the strictest sense, “members” can only be part of a “membership” organization, which is defined by that group’s bylaws. And as they say on those AmEx commercials, “Membership has its privileges.” In other words, if someone is going to commmit to becoming a “member,” they have the right to expect benefits, like a members-only web page, a members-only event or newsletter, the right to vote for the board. That sort of thing.
But that’s just the legal and official definition of “member” and the meaning of “membership” as applied to organizations. The real world has at least fifty shades of nuance, particularly when it comes to fundraising. So when you’re trying to think expensively, why not think expansively? The idea of “membership” gives many donors a greater sense of connection to and ownership of a nonprofit organization, in a way that “donor” or “supporter” does not. “I’m a member” means “I belong,” “I’m part of the Cool Kids Club,” and “I own this.” Those are important sentiments to nurture – particularly because deeper connection increases the likelihood of deeper financial support.
But there’s a hitch: some groups have noticed that fewer people these days seem to be motivated by “paying dues.” The renewal letter that says “it’s time to renew your dues” may be very, um, yesterday. So what’s today’s version?
If a fundraising program is aimed at connecting as many people as possible to your work, and building community ownership in your success, then words that create connection are important. Some organizations are concluding that anyone who gives any amount of money (even a business that donates a boat trip to the silent auction) will be a considered a “member.” Some types of members – major donors, for example – require extra effort beyond the methods used to bring in and renew other members.
Box of chocolates, anyone?
- Allison Handler, Portland, OR
Guidebook helps land trusts navigate problem easements
Like many other land trusts, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation (NJCF) has its share of problem easements. One of six land trusts that participated in the Easement Revitalization Initiative, NJCF allowed Solid Ground’s national conservation team to rummage around through the details of several troubled easements that the organization held, in order to better understand the issues and possible solutions.
Sponsored by Open Space Institute (OSI), the Easement Revitalization Initiative brought together legal analysis and practical perspectives from land trust practitioners to understand the types of easement problems that groups encounter, and potential ways to resolve or manage them. The fourteen-month process resulted in the Easement Revitalization Guidebook, which provides a pathway for land trusts to work through problem easements.
The Guidebook provides a way for groups to categorize troubled easements. For example, is the problem vague or conflicting language? Is it missing documentation in the file? Is it compromised conservation value? The nature of the problem suggests different solutions.
NJCF executive director Michele Byers admits that the process can be overwhelming. But, she says, it’s also clarifying: “After going through the easement revitalization process, we realized that extinguishment is off the table. Even if it looks like common sense it would have such a large negative impact to the state.”
The bottom line, according to Michele, is that she’s “relieved that we were not the only ones without answers to everything about our problem easements. We know we can be creative with solutions.”
Indeed! The Guidebook encourages land trusts to align clear, disciplined conservation with creative, engaging landowner relationships to make problems easements better – and the conservation community just a little bit stronger.
- Bill Long, Helena, MT
We are adding to our team!
We are looking for candidates who will bring diversity to our team…
along with solid professional skills, passion, and a positive outlook.
Consultant – The Consultant plays a key role on the Solid Ground Consulting team, providing organizational development and strategic counsel to clients in all service areas. In addition, the Consultant plays a role in the marketing and business development activities of the firm.
- At least five years background in organizational development and strategy
- Strong preference for direct professional experience with nonprofit and public agencies, especially in positions of leadership
- Consulting experience preferred
- Demonstrated excellence in communication and writing
Senior Consultant – The senior consultant needs deep experience in organizational development consulting. We are looking for a seasoned consultant with an established client base.
- Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Development, or related field; Master’s degree preferred
- Advanced proficiency in organizational development and/or strategic planning
- Consulting experience
Contact us at Contact for more information.
Lowcountry: Vision without Hallucination
There is a difference between vision and hallucination.
Many groups talk about vision and consider what they’d like to influence in the future. But few groups really make their vision the centerpiece of their work today.
Perhaps you need to meet one of our favorite clients: the Lowcountry Open Land Trust. This group has been working to protect the beauty of the Lowcountry of South Carolina for several decades. And Solid Ground worked with them over the last year as the group took that commitment to a new level.
As part of their strategic planning process, the group engaged community members in an authentic conversation about what they want to see for their Lowcountry home. To do this, the land trust:
- Held listening sessions with key supporters and community leaders to get their suggestions.
- Hosted a dedicated Business Leader Breakfast to specifically engage those focused on key business and economic development issues.
- Converted their annual meeting from a passive program to an active conversation, with more than 100 supporters describing what they want for the future of their community.
- Invited the community to an open forum at the local library that attracted more than 120 community members who care about the special places of the region but who had not yet had a voice in what should happen. The meeting was distinctive because it brought in a mix of ages and interests, and wasn’t limited to hearing from or speaking to “the choir.”
In addition, the land trust sat down with people throughout the community to hear the voices that care about the places the trust is working to protect. A wide variety of caring people – old and young, school children and farmers and business leaders and parents – all shared their vision of the Lowcountry. On tape.
The results of this investment, made over most of a year, are extraordinary. The land trust invested in capturing this vision in both a brochure and a video called the “Soul of the Lowcountry”. These results are wonderful examples of taking an idea and making the most of it.
The land trust used this information to shape their strategic plan, and now have a plan that is both aspirational and realistic. It conveys what the community wants and what the land trust believes it can do. This is planning at its finest.
Some of the great lessons that emerged from this project:
- Make your engagement authentic. If you want people’s opinion, ask them. And then listen. Don’t spend most of your time talking to them.
- Use the conversations you already have to make the most of them. Annual meetings are notoriously boring. Think about what else you’re already doing that can become opportunities to listen. If we take the time to engage those who show up – whenever or wherever that may be – everybody gets more out of it. Our supporters deserve to have input and to be heard. And our organizations are the richer for it.
- Reach beyond your base. Every group needs to prove their relevance to the broader community. Take the time to reach out to those who could care if you engage them in a true exchange of ideas and opinions. Don’t be afraid to hear difficult things. Clearer levels of disagreement may appear – and so will greater degrees of respect, even support.
Share your results. Hearing what people have to say is the first step. Sharing what you’ve heard is the next. People want to know that you’ve heard what they’ve said. They also want to know what others have said. And by the way, this can be extremely useful information to support your fundraising efforts.