Episode #016: Nonprofit Boards with Joan Garry

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson. And if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity, cause, membership, or movement, I made this podcast just for you. 

TOBI: All right, everybody! I am so delighted because Joan Garry is in the house! You may be aware of her. She is a national champion for our sector. She writes a highly successful blog that you may have read on JoanGarry.com, which reaches over a hundred thousand people monthly. And you may be already one of her followers.  

She also is the host of the number one non-profit podcast on iTunes. Non-profits Are Messy. And I have been a guest on that pod, and I’ll link to it in the show notes, of course. And if you don’t listen, you should, because Joan’s podcast really has excellent interviews with different people in the nonprofit sector and outside it and their insights about our work. So, I think you really should check that out.  

She also has written the second edition of her book Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership. It should be handed to every nonprofit leader and every new board member. So if you are listening and you are a board member or a nonprofit leader, check it out.  

In 2017, Joan launched another resource for all of us, the Nonprofit Leadership Lab, an online premium membership site for board and staff leaders of small nonprofits that offers a deeper dive than her blog can. And with a modest price tag, I might add. For less than a cup of coffee a day, I would say, for whom coaching and consulting may be prohibitive.  

In the lab, you’ll have regular access to Joan, exclusive content created by Joan and Joan’s village of experts. And I am actually one of your village of experts, and you can check out my training inside Joan’s Nonprofit Leadership Lab as well. 

But here’s the interesting part. I think .Joan began her career as part of the management team that launched MTV way back in 1981. She left corporate America in 1997 to fight for LGBTQ equality as the executive director of Blab, one of the largest gay rights organizations in the U S.  

This switch was motivated by her victory in a precedent-setting case in which she became the first woman in the state of New Jersey to legally adopt her partner’s biological kids. Joan likes to say that her kids legally have two moms, whether they like it or not. So please join me in welcoming Joan Garry,  

JOAN: Tobi, how are you?  

TOBI: I’m fantastic. Joan! It’s been a while. It’s taken us a while to get together. And I’m so excited today about just talking about, you know, Volunteer Nation is all about volunteers, and board members are volunteers. So we’re going to get deep into that.  

JOAN: I love that. And I think that people forget that. Board members in one bucket and we have volunteers over here, but they they’re all in the same. They’re all part of the same posse.  

TOBI: Yeah. Part of the same posse. So we’re going to get right into this, but before we get there, I know I’ve talked about a little bit about you, but I’d really like to know what really motivated you to take the step and get into non-profit work after your corporate.  

I know we talked a little bit about your case in New Jersey, but what was the moment? Do you remember a moment in time where you said, “You know what, I’m going to take this on.”  

JOAN: Yeah, there were actually two moments, and they were pretty woven together. And one of them was this lawsuit. Now do remember that my wife and I planned these children and had them together. She did all the birthing, and I did all the catching. But there was no marriage equality at that time. So, I had no legal rights or connections to our kids.  

So, it became a practical and important thing to do, but we did it for our family. And I do remember a moment the day that the decision was released to the press, that we were commuting to New York to our jobs.  

And we were in Port Authority bus terminal. And I said, “You know, I wonder if it’ll be in the paper today?” And we walked towards one of those newsstands that you see, you know, transportation hubs. And either it was a slow news day, or they just liked to put the word “lesbian” in huge type face on the front page of like the Bergen Record and the Newark Star Ledger. 

But it was like, whoa. And when we – so like, it was quite a huge story. And when we got home that night, there were just so many voicemail messages. And so many people had emailed us who were also either gay families or allies of gay families that were like, “This case is going to change our life.”   

“We’re just going to be able to go to town hall and get paperwork, and you’ve made that. You helped make us a family.” And I love telling the story about the fact that our daughter, who was three at the time and the subject of this case, we came home and there were balloons that had been delivered by someone. 

And we were early that day because we were picking up our new Volvo station wagon and racing out of the house. And she said, “Oh my gosh, it’s such a big day! We’re getting a new car!” So there was literally that sort of cheesy, one-person-can-make-a-difference thing.  

And then the second piece was that I was in a job that I, you know, I was very good at it. And I liked it. I was at Showtime, and I had become very involved in an employee communications group. And I became this sort of activist or advocate for the employees at Showtime, making sure they got what they, we all got what we needed.  

And I was doing it in such a way that it got a lot of notoriety in the organization and with the CEO .And I just thought to myself, you know, I actually have leadership qualities that I didn’t know that I had and might be put to better use elsewhere. So it was kind of the combination of those two things.  

TOBI: That’s awesome. Well, and I have to remind people this back in the 1990s. Things were a lot harder back then, and you were setting precedent for sure. I mean, not that things aren’t hard now, but there are legal precedents now that you helped sort of start out.  

JOAN: Yeah. Many of these like “smaller” cases were instrumental in larger cases on the state and the federal level. So, yeah.  

TOBI: Yeah. That’s fantastic. So, you know, you worked as an executive director, and then a few years ago you started the Nonprofit Leadership Lab. You wrote a book, you started your podcast. So you were really interested in, as you’ve said to me before, helping the helpers.  

JOAN: Yeah.  

TOBI: What precipitated that step into this new world of helping the helpers and moving out of being in a leadership role in a nonprofit? 

JOAN: Well, I think that once you have taken this by mantle, do you know what I was talking about? I was advocating for the employees and Showtime, and then advocating for the LGBTQ community. You can’t actually stop advocating, right? Like, it’s not something you shut off.  

And, when I started my blog and people started to reach out to me and they’d find my email address, or they find my cell number, it was just such a clear kind of a clarion call that people really needed.  

Not just technical resources. ‘Cause you can go, you know, you’ll find them, you Google, “I need a template for a board meeting agenda” like a lot of folks. You know, you can find that stuff. What you can’t find is somebody who’s really an advocate for you, a champion for your success. Somebody who’s totally in your corner.  

And I do think that is part and parcel of why my blog took off is that it felt very mission-driven for me. I really wanted, I felt empathy for non-profit leaders, especially those for whom professional development was either personally out of the question, like “I don’t deserve that,” or, you know, or it wasn’t budgeted.  

And so, I think that’s piece of it. I think there’s a piece of it for me that having been a nonprofit executive director, I know that it’s like the hardest work that you can do. And it’s the most important work and the hardest work and the work that often has the fewest resources attached to it.  

I did talk about a trifecta, right? And I also think that, like I said, I think that most nonprofit leaders do not prioritize leadership development. Many of them are too small. Many of them can’t afford it. And I just wanted people to know that somebody was in their court.  

Now, there are many people that…you know, you’re in their court too. But that’s how I think about it.  

TOBI: Yeah. Yeah. It was the same for me when I started about,I think it was about 12, 13 years ago when I left my nonprofit job. I’d been working in nonprofits for 20, 25 years. And I actually had a job offer when I moved here to Knoxville. You know, my husband and I got married, I moved out here and I had a job offer, but then I was like, “You know what? I can either continue to work, or I can share what I know.”  

And like you, I saw a need in the volunteer’s part of the bigger sector, that subsector that was so…you know, very few people were supporting leaders of volunteers and organizations and building a volunteer strategy. So I completely get that.  

And when I was a leader, I was not an executive director. I was a program director, but I had a three and a half million dollar budget, I had about 15 staff. I had, sub-grantees, you name it.  

I had a big job. And I always felt very alone. And I used to say to myself to kind of calm myself down, the tall tree gets the wind. Right?  

And so, I like you as a ruckus maker as well, like making…You know, really cannot – it’s in your DNA, the advocacy gene.  

JOAN: It totally is.  

TOBI: It totally is. So, you know, you’ve been very successful in bringing nonprofit boards and executives together in service to the organization’s mission. And you call this that twin engine plane. I’ve heard you speak of this.  

Why do you think it’s important that an organization be guided successfully by both sides, aside from simply, you know, sharing the workload and getting things done. Why do you think it’s helpful to have those two sides to balance?  

JOAN: Well, first of all, there’s an important reason that has to do with the fact that nonprofits are stewards of public dollars And must really invest them wisely. And there needs to be because of that, I think because of that component, there needs to be some entity that provides really solid oversight as to how those dollars are invested.  

You know, I think that one of several differentiators between a for-profit board and a nonprofit board is that, you know, I donate X amount of money to an organization. I expect it to be invested well, but I also expect there to be some oversight about that.  

But I think there’s more, there’s definitely more to it. And it’s actually one of the reasons that I admire the work that you do in the niche that you fill so wonderfully, is that nonprofits offer citizens the opportunity to be leaders, right? To get out of the stands and onto the field and offer skills, expertise, and lived experience that a nonprofit doesn’t have, can’t afford, or shouldn’t invest in. Right?  

If I am the head of social media marketing for some big company, you’re never going to be able to afford me. And if you could, I wouldn’t want you to spend that money on me. I’d want you to give it to Tobi Johnson and take her three and a half million dollar program budget and knock it up a couple of hundred thousand dollars, right?  

So it becomes this wealth of expertise and lived experience. And, and as a result offers a staff and its leadership your…the whole is so much is greater than the sum of those parts. And that’s why I think about that twin engine jet.  

And also because I don’t think that staff leaders often think of think of themselves in partnership with their board, the twin engine jet model was a way for people to sort of see a different picture. 

TOBI: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, without one, you got a spinning, correct?  

JOAN: I’m not boarding any plane with only one engine!  

TOBI: That’s right, that’s right! So, you know, on Volunteer Nation, we talk all things volunteering, community engagement. But at times, as I mentioned earlier in this interview, I don’t think that people really consider the fact that nonprofit boards of directors are actually volunteers themselves. 

In your mind, maybe what differentiates them from other kinds of volunteers, if anything? What’s the same and what’s different between your board, and for lack of a better phrase, rank-and-file volunteers or volunteers that are doing other things, whether it’s advocacy, direct service event management, whatever it is.  

JOAN: So the question is, do I think board members are different than other volunteers, and are their their needs different as a result, right?  

TOBI: Yeah. And what might be similarities if there are any?  

JOAN: Yeah. And I think the answer is kind of, yes, there are different, the roles are different and the, and yes, their needs are the same. They are a different category of leader, but whatever it is you do to recruit, to nurture, to cultivate, to steward, to hold accountable, a volunteer should be at play with your board, just as much as it is with your, you know, sort of your posse of volunteers.  

I do think that board members, as I mentioned earlier, have that fiduciary governance role that they can’t screw up, right? Or they’re not supposed to screw up, maybe we say it that way. And they have, because of that oversight role, that makes part of what guides the world of the 501c3.  

They do have a greater degree of authority, I guess I would say, but their needs are the same. And I think that’s something that staff leaders really need to be focused on. Is that these are, in fact, volunteers,  

TOBI: Right. I mean, they were emotional humans, right? We’re humans doing, and I agree there’s that accountability and legal responsibility for shepherding the non-profit, you know, in a legal sense and overseeing its functioning. But, but yeah, I agree.  

They’re humans. They are humans, right? And when we’re giving our time and talent and treasure, and giving of our time and our hearts and our minds, you know, that involves, it’s emotional work. It’s emotional work.  

JOAN: Yeah. And I think about, all too often the relationship between the staff and the board has some sort of tension associated with it. The staff has either unrealistic expectations of what a board is going to be able to contribute there. They get into this really nasty habit of nagging their board.  

You know, “Why aren’t you selling more tickets?” You know, “Don’t you know anybody who’s wealthy?”  

TOBI: Right. “I thought when you joined, you were going to bring your people.” 

JOAN: Right. “I thought, I really thought there was going to be a roller board full of the cash actually coming with.” And because of that, what they forget that I think is part of what you really champion with volunteers, is that board members, like any volunteers, they have to be fed.  

They have to be fueled. They just don’t magically raise money. They don’t just magically invite 12 people to sit at their, you know, their real or virtual table at an event. Right? They have to be the, I like to think about all volunteers as you go recruiting and you look for people whose light, I think about it.  

It’s very sort of Quaker like that. They’re like pilot lights. Like when I was thinking about joining GLADD my pilot light for gay rights was shining really brightly. And everybody who interviewed me for that job could see it. And that’s what you should be looking for in board members and volunteers.  

But it is your job. It is your job to keep that light stoked, right? To make it as bright as you possibly can. I mean, how often do board members sit in meetings and you just watch their lights go out?  

TOBI: Oh girl, I have been on that board. And in that meeting, I had to leave that for, you know, it was…   

JOAN: So I think it’s, I guess that’s when I talk needs of volunteers. I believe it’s one that staff members really have to prioritize more across the board with volunteers, but specifically with board members that their light doesn’t just stay on.  

TOBI: Right. Well, hey, let’s take a quick break. And when we’re back, we’ll talk more about how to build a thriving volunteer board with Joan Garry. So don’t go anywhere. We’ll be back in just a few minutes.  

If you’ve enjoyed this week’s episode of Volunteer Nation, we invite you to check out the VolunteerPro Membership Community, the most comprehensive resource of its kind for attracting, engaging and supporting dedicated high-impact volunteer talent.  

This is the only implementation program of its kind that helps volunteer-driven organizations build maturity across five phases of our proprietary system, the Volunteer Strategy Success Path.  

Our exclusive training, tools, and templates, aligned with our monthly jobs-to-be-done themes, help organizations build out essential program elements in less time, and with greater confidence. To learn more. Visit volpro.net/join.   

TOBI: Okay, we’re back with our discussion with Joan Garry about how to build a thriving volunteer board. Let us get into some actionable steps that organizations can take to build the capacity of their, both their volunteer leaders and their boards. 

When people are, you know, I often think people can be, there can be a succession plan of existing volunteers who show leadership potential who show talent, who show interest in, you know, taking the next step to supporting the organization on a higher level, on a deeper level.  

And I think rarely do people look within their own volunteers, existing volunteer corps to see, you know, is there anybody here who has the interest, has the talent, has the time, et cetera? So there’s that, but also, you know, when people are seeking people out for leadership roles, where should they start, do you think?  

JOAN: So actually, they should probably start by looking in their own house. Right? So, let’s start with that comment first and then we can go bigger. It goes back to this whole notion of nurturing and cultivating volunteers and getting to know them.  

And I did a podcast with a very close friend of mine and it’s called From Kitchen Volunteer o Board Chair 

TOBI: I’ll link to it.  

JOAN: And, and it’s the perfect example. And it’s not just about my friend. It’s about how the organization nurtured. Right? Part of the Tuesday morning kitchen crew. Had God’s love. We deliver, slicing vegetables, chopping and making soups, right?  

Now, she happened to have a direct mail background. This was some time ago, right? And so, if the organization didn’t get to know Sylvia, they wouldn’t know that she had that background. If the volunteer manager didn’t get down to the kitchen crew and give them updates on the exciting things that were happening at the organization, Sylvia’s light might’ve gone out.  

But both of those things were true. And all of a sudden Sylvia’s saying, “Do you need help in your development department?” And one of the things I love about this story real quickly is that she worked her way up. She is not…she would if she was right here, she’d say “I’m not wealthy. And I’m not really wealth-adjacent.” Adjacent means I know rich people, right?  

TOBI: I know exactly what that means because I said that exact thing when I was invited to a board to work on healthcare advocacy, which is a huge thing close to my heart. And that’s exactly what I said when they invited me. I said, “Well, first of all, I’m not sure why you’re inviting me. I’m happy to give my talent, but I want you to know that I don’t know rich people.”  

JOAN: Yeah. The jargon is that you are not wealth-adjacent. Well, anyway, Sylvia came up with an idea because she worked in the kitchen. The kitchen was tiled. She said, “What if we sold the tiles?” And you could for 250 bucks, you could put a name on a tile. This was during the AIDS epidemic, right? And a heart, if you lost the person.  

I think that they are close to them raising a million dollars on the sale of those tiles. And this is someone who is neither wealthy nor wealth-adjacent. Right? So, looking within is smart. It’s also, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for you to diversify your organization.  

So I had a guy who worked for me at GLADD, and he was in charge of volunteers. He was a man of color and he worked really hard to kind of spread the good word about GLADD in a variety of different ponds, diversified our volunteer base.  

Those folks, a number of those folks became interns who became staff, right? So our staff became diverse because we focused on it at all levels, including the ground up.  

As far as what to look for or where to look for board members, you have to start by designing your ideal board. You have to actually create a matrix and say ,”what are the skills, the, the expertise, the lived experience that I need around that conference room table that can partner with me?”  

It’s a very, I call it strategic casting. And once you have done that, then you lay that up against who you have today. And then you see where the gaps are, and then you prioritize the gaps.And I like boards to actually approve the matrix so that everybody can see what the end game looks like, so that we’re all on the same path together.  

And when you then say, “We are prioritizing human resources.” Let’s say we need an academic who can then lend credibility and gravitas to our work. Then say, “Those are our two priorities.” Then you’re not going to your full board and say, “Does anybody know anybody who wants to sit on our board?” Which is a question to answer in the abstract.  

And then, staffs get really annoyed that you don’t come up with anybody. But if you say, “We need an HR generalist who can help us if we have to terminate somebody, who can help us do final interviews on senior leaders.” And think about, how should we do that? We don’t have that kind of heft on our staff.  

That’s different than, “Does anyone know somebody who might know somebody?” And by the way, HR departments tend to be some of the most diverse departments in a company. And so then you put a diversity lens on top of the casting and you say, “Okay, I’m looking for for an academic. Should we look at HBCU?”  

Right? Historically black colleges and universities. How might we, how might we find an academic who is really interested in this particular area that we need credibility for? Who, who might, who might be, you know, at an editor at a historically black college or university, for example.  

So that’s, to me, that’s how this whole thing should operate. Is it a process? Yes. Does it take time? Yes. Does it need a task force where you’re actually thinking you’re not necessarily talking to the person, but you might be talking to a leader that leads you to a person? Yes. Is it important? Yes.  

And does it take you a really, really long time to get someone off your board who’s the wrong fit or a problem? Yeah. You answer that question, listener. Well, I’d rather take the right amount of time to get the right people on the bus, then go through the emotional torture of trying to get someone off the bus who doesn’t belong there. 

TOBI: So how do folks react when you show the matrix? You know, we’ll get into a little bit more about accountability and you know, when you’re bringing on new people, but existing folk.  

You know, I hear this a lot from leaders of volunteers, both for other types of volunteers, but also, and I’m sure you get this a lot in this challenge for folks in the Leadership Lab of, you know, What do I do with the folks who aren’t pulling their weight, aren’t accountable, aren’t following through?”  

And I feel like, what I hear a lot is people aren’t having, you know, real heart to heart conversations with people. They’re just suffering in silence. And I say, well, nobody has the opportunity to improve, if they don’t know they need to prove. And sometimes they do know they need to improve, but they don’t know how to improve. Right? What’s your advice?  

JOAN: I think you should never assume that a low-performing board member is disinterested or not good at your job. Like, is it possible that they don’t really understand the job? Is it possible that that there’s a misalignment between what they thought they were coming to bring to the organization and what you are asking them for?  

I think the answer to that is often yes. So the first thing is, let’s not assume. And you’re actually right. Tobi. Let’s have a conversation with that person. “How is your board experience going for you relative to, you know, you’ve decided to join this board, you know, two years ago, why did you decide to join?”  

“What did you think you were going to bring and how has that been working out?” Now, in some cases that’ll lead to, “I thought I was going to have more time. I thought I was X or Y, but I’m not. And I probably should self-select off.”  

Or it might just be a wake-up call for the staff about what we’re doing with that board member, and how they could be utilized in a way that you’re not now. How about, you know, you have that conversation. You can’t even get the conversation going because that board member is totally MIA. That’s different.  

And I actually advise clients to leave the MIA board members right where they are. MIA. And the reason that I do is because I have a limited amount of investment of time that I can invest in. I’ve got to invest in my rockstars. I got to appreciate the hell out of them.  

And I’ve got to take those folks in the middle. And I got to focus on them. How can I, how can I, you know, these are people that will do something if you ask them, but they’re not necessarily initiators. That’s where the time investment should go. There.  

So if you think of them as, A’s are rockstars, B’s are that middle group, and C’s you’re dead weight. Focus on your B’s, appreciate the hell out of your A’s and go find new board members, because that what happens. That’s the key to tipping your board in the direction that the organization needs it to go.  

Not like perseverating about, “I cannot believe that person will not return my call! I can’t believe that that person missed another board meeting!” That is a waste of energy, right? Put your deep focus on your B-level board members and do the process, the intentional strategic casting, tip the board.  

And you know, what happens when you do that? You know what happens to those dead weight board members? They start to feel like dead weight, and they go away themselves.  

TOBI: Yeah. There’s a sort of a social proof going on, right? The group, the crowd, the crowd is moving in a certain direction and you’re either going to have some FOMO, fear of missing out, and you’re going to join the party, or you’re going to say, “Oh, this isn’t for me, this isn’t my thing.”  

I mean, I totally had that experience as a board member. I love the advice to just sit down and ask people and actually invest in a conversation. And that misalignment, I remember when I joined a board, I told them flat out, “I will not dial for dollars. I will not do that.” I’m not interested in doing that. I do not think that cold calling people is the smartest way to raise money.  

And I am perfectly happy to sit down with a potential major donor, sit in their living room, or sit in a coffee shop and have a conversation about our mission and make an ask then. But I will not, I do not want to be on the phone, calling people and interrupting them at their dinner time. 

I just, I’m like morally against it. I don’t like people making phone calls like that. Anyway, that was my personal point of view. Now, other people may have other points of view about what they think works, but what did they ask me to do, Joan?  

JOAN: They asked you to make cold calls.  

TOBI: Yep. And okay, what did I do? I said, “Okay, fine. I’ll be part of the team. I’ll make the cold calls. I’ll do what I have to do.” 

JOAN: Such a good girl.  

TOBI: But then, you know, because I’m a thought leader, you know, I’m an expert in the field. I’m going to do my do, I’m gonna follow through on my responsibilities as a volunteer. But what happened at the end of my term?  

At the end of my term, as a board member, I was out, thank you so much. I appreciate the opportunity, I’m done. And I mean, while I was there, I created a chart of accountabilities. I mean, I really like brought my best volunteer engagement chops and expertise and consulting to the organization. 

And because no one ever sat down with me and asked me, “How’s it going? Is this aligning with your needs as a volunteer and as a leader in our organization?” Because nobody did that. I’m like, you know what? I can’t do this anymore. This is stressing me out.  

JOAN: Now, did they do an exit interview?  

TOBI: Nope. 

JOAN: Right. So they didn’t get the benefit of this lesson you’re sharing with everyone today.  

TOBI: Nope. And it’s too bad because I love the organization, but there’s a point where, you know gang, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how much people love your cause. They can find another cause that does very nearly the same thing. Or sometimes they’ll start their own cause or they’ll do their own work, you know, informally in their community.  

So, you know, especially now with like the great resignation going on, I feel like that’s impacting volunteers as well. They’re like, look, I’m going to be more, even more because I’m exhausted from this pandemic. I’m going to be even more picky about where and how I spend my time because I’ve had an existential epiphany in my life, or I’m simply exhausted and I only have so much energy to share. Right?  

JOAN: I think it’s totally true. And it is not, and more, and combined that with, you know, different generations that are looking for true and authentic participation. Right? There’s just, there’s a lot more at stake, but there’s so much more opportunity for nonprofits as a result. 

TOBI: Yeah. Well, let me ask you, you know, you mentioned loving on your superstars, your superheroes, and of course your B’s as well, but what are things you might recommend that folks do to appreciate their volunteer leaders?  

JOAN: So a couple of ideas come to mind. One of them may be a little counterintuitive. One of the things that I am a huge advocate for: board committees. And for board committees to have a clear charge. Annual goals. So that I, as a committee member have have a notion of what successful looks like at the end of the year. So that I’ll actually feel compelled to show up to the committee meetings.   

What I like is for the board chair to ask those committees. So let’s take the matrix, for example, all the composition matrix for your nominations committee. So you can actually love me up by giving me center stage at a board meeting to present our work. Right?  

“So our committee has been meeting for the last couple of, you know, for the last two months. And this is the work that we’ve done, how we’ve gone about it. And this is the composition matrix. This is the priority that, you know, all the great skills and expertise that you bring. And these are the gaps as we have prioritized them. And I’d like to facilitate a conversation about that.”  

Well, I like to strut my stuff, right? Board members really like people to know they’re good at their jobs. So I know it sounds counterintuitive, but it’s in the woods, both boats, that accountability tactic, and it’s an appreciation.  

The other thing is I like to be acknowledged. I do like to be acknowledged and I like to be acknowledged in front of my peers. You could send me an email. That’s fine. But if you say something about my work in a setting where my fellow board members are there, that feels really, that feels really good.  

Yes, of course, right? When was the last time you called a board member and said thank you? What’s the last time you actually responded to an email that a board member sent? And so thank you for taking the time to respond.  You’re the first one that will complain that board members don’t respond to emails, but how often do you then express some gratitude that they do?  

And then the last thing is I always encourage my clients to start every single board meeting with a prudent appreciation for their board members. Their board members could be home finishing the final episodes of Ozark.  

TOBI: Oh, I did girl!  

JOAN: No! We’re no spoiler alerts! They made a choice to be at this board meeting, right? Somebody else is putting their kids to bed, whatever it might be. Never take that for granted.  

And it just, it just feels really good when you open a board meeting by saying, “I know there are a lot of other things on your list this evening that you could be doing, and that somebody else might be holding up the fort for you. And I just want you to know how much I appreciate that.” Right?  

And end the same way, and carry the responsibility of that with you when you design those meetings. Right? If I actually had to put somebody else in charge of bathing the triplets, I better come home and say, “Oh my gosh, that was an awesome board meeting. Thank you so much, honey. I know it was a heavy lift for you tonight, but we really did some great work.”  

That’s what you want out of that meeting. So that’s appreciate me by making really good use of the time I donate.  

JOAN: Yeah. I mean, there’s a couple of responses to that one. I used to work and train a group of volunteers in there. I used to train around the Western part of Washington state when I lived in Washington state and was doing, running my PR before I became director of the program.  

And I was a regional trainer and one of the volunteer coordinators there would, she had a very involved group of volunteers who did pretty high-level stuff. And she, at once a year, she’d do a luncheon and she’d invite the spouses and partners of the volunteers.  

And she would say, “You know what? I know your folks are spending time away from your families to be with us. I just want to thank you for that.” So smart.   

JOAN: Smart, yep. Thank you for donating. You’re not just donating, you know, right? It’s not just you that’s donating your time and treasure. It’s that your significant other, your imaginary friends? They’re all donating, too.  

TOBI: Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, the second thing is, you know, we know that their research shows us about six different types of volunteer motivations, and I’ll link to link to a blog post on this in the show notes. But you know, when you think each volunteer is motivated by one or two of these six. and different volunteer teams, you know, often are motivated similarly, right?  

And if you think about boards, what some of the motivations are. One of the motivations is basically, for lack of better way of framing it, power. You know, people feel either they’re self-actualizing as humans. So they’re getting to the top of their apex and they want to give more out to the world beyond themselves.  

Or they want to have some type of influence in the world, in something that they want to see change. You know? So if you think about your board members, if you kind of try to characterize them in a certain way, or you can even find ask them, “What motivates you?”  

You can think about it. These are busy people. These are people that might be Type A. So what’s going to float their boat when they get acknowledged for achieving something because that’s their personality type?   

So, you know, I love all the things you were saying, the examples you were saying, because in my mind I was saying, yeah. And that would be because that, you know, the people that are attracted to this level of responsibility, accountability, and leadership often have these personality traits. Not everybody, but it’s interesting to think about that, you know?  

JOAN: Totally. And I have this Type A thing. It is true. They’re accustomed to being successful. Right? That’s this is a big issue. Tell me what success looks like as a board member. I don’t think I often know. And then let me be successful. 

And then one other piece of it, if I can just say this really quickly, is that I experienced this as a type a board member myself. What I’m accustomed to getting 95’s on my book reports. Like, my covers are never really great, but I get the 95’s, right?  

When you have a day job and you’re a board member, it’s really hard to get a 95. And, I think it’s really important as you’re managing board members, as volunteers they are, is to recognize that it’s an uncomfortable place. Let’s take me, for me to get an 85 on something.   

But that an 85 is a – I’m going to totally mix my metaphors here – is a total grand slam home run for the organization. 85 out of me, that’s awesome. But I feel, oh, damn, I should’ve gotten a 95 on it, I should have done more.  

I’ve had, I’ve actually had a board member who left my board, who I thought was a rockstar. And he felt like he was not doing enough because of that difference, right? Is that he was accustomed to getting A’s and he felt like he was kind of like a B player, you know?  

So I think you have to be really careful. And that’s why appreciation in some ways is even more important for board members because these are the people that are coming, that they’re accustomed to playing in a game. And they usually have big, they often have big jobs or big lives and we have to sort of manage the expectations and appreciate the hell out of them. 

TOBI: Well, and I also think folks who don’t live and breathe nonprofit work, do not understand how difficult the work is. If you’re coming from a corporate environment and you’re like, “Look, just make the decision and get it done. Make the decision, resource it and get it done by Q2.” You know, whatever.  

And you’re in a nonprofit where, oh, no, we got to go out to the stakeholders. Oh no, we got to follow grant requirements. Oh no, we’ve got like other mandates. Oh no. Like, you know, we’ve got, we’re doing grassroots to grass tops work. This takes time.   

Not to mention that the things that nonprofits are tackling are more challenging, otherwise in a corporate America would have swooped in and figured that out already,you know? It’s hard work. And so sometimes the speed and the pace of things is slower as well. And then they have a feeling that they’re not really progressing.  

JOAN: All of that is so true.  

TOBI: So even with other volunteers, I find that you got to let your volunteers know we’re in a different environment.  

Let me ask you one more question in our discussion today. This is just a question about our worlds, like what the interface is. So I work with leaders of volunteers who often feel like the board and leadership in the organization either doesn’t understand what they do, doesn’t value volunteers.  

But you know, I always encourage them. Look, your work as talent managers and connectors in the community is highly strategic and your board should know what you’re up to. And in fact probably should, you know, approve what you’re up to. What do you think the relationship between the, whether it’s a director of volunteers or coordinator of volunteers or part-time volunteer manager and the work of the board, how do you think those should connect?  

JOAN: For the last year and a half after my wife retired, she went hunting for volunteer opportunities and had a number of false starts. And, it made me think that boards should, or there were organizations that didn’t know what to do with someone who said, “I will do anything.” Right?  

“I’ll do whatever, whatever you need, I’ll do it.” And that she has found some, but I almost feel like boards should ask for, what is your volunteer engagement strategy? How are you going to bring volunteers to the table this year? And hold them accountable to do so because staff members will be the first people to say, I need a new hire to do X, or I need a new hire to do Y and justify it up the wazoo.  

But do we actually say, what’s my strategy for increasing? How can I increase the number of volunteers who are part of our organization’s posse? You’re the one, I quote you all the time about, you know, the more volunteers an organization has, many, many things, many good things happen as a result. Right?  

So I think one thing is, I think a board should really focus on that. is say, I’d like to hear about what a volunteer engagement strategy looks like. How many volunteers do we have today? And what would be true if we had twice as many? What could be true that is not true today if we had twice as many?  

And then I think you have to keep the whole volunteer engagement because, and frankly, because they are the same in the same posse, it’s even more important, right? So as long as your managers should have an opportunity to have some face time with the board, to be able to say, “Here’s what our volunteer base has made possible this quarter. Here is an impact story.” Something that wouldn’t have happened had we not had volunteers. Right?  

And, I think there’s not enough visibility of the exponential impact that volunteers can bring to an organization. I mean, I think sustainability an organ to sustain an organization. So sustainability is absolutely linked to the number of people in its universe who are supporting it, whether it be people who are just sharing and liking their posts on Facebook, you know, through delivering direct service, doing advocacy, whatever, all the way to the board.  

And if you don’t have diverse solar system of people circling around, and the more planets and celestial bodies that are flat at your sun, the better, because, you know, it’s just like exponential growth that can happen that way. And you can scale that, like you said.  

It’s not the answer – isn’t always, “Let’s find the money to hire another paid staffer.”  

TOBI: Super conversation. I have loved this, Joan. It’s been so much fun having you.  

JOAN: Well, I think that you lift up an important element of nonprofit leadership that so important and does not get sufficient spotlight, and has so much more impact on the ability, the sustainability, and the impact an organization can have than people really understand. So I really appreciate you for doing that. 

TOBI: Yeah. And I appreciate you for, you know, helping the helpers and helping our leaders really see a new way. A way that’s healthy, a way that sustainable, a way that’s diverse, and you know, a way that’s fun.  

JOAN: Yeah. I mean, you know, this may be hard work, but it is pretty amazing and joyful to be able to have a job where you are really making a profound difference in real lives, you know, in the real lives of real people.  

TOBI: Yup. Let me ask you one last question before we go. I love to ask everybody this question. What excites you about the year ahead?  

JOAN: I’m excited. I guess let’s see. I’m excited to see how nonprofits emerge from the deep depths of the pandemic with new lessons, with an appetite for innovation and piloting.  

I believe that nonprofits had to be so nimble in a way they were not before. They had to take risks, and nonprofits are amazingly risk averse. That’s a topic for another day, I suppose. 

And I guess there’s also hope. Maybe hopeful is the right word rather than excited. I see the focus the sector is placing on diversity, equity and inclusion. I’m excited that it’s on the radar screen in a way it has not been.  

And I am hopeful that it will become, will start to evolve into becoming a core value at a nonprofit organization and frankly to the non-profits sector. I am hopeful about that because I’m excited that I am seeing forward motion and hopeful, hopeful that it will be the right kind of forward motion.  

TOBI: Yeah. I could not agree more. I could not agree more. Yeah. It’s always been, people have always had a wish, but now it seems to be, there’s more resource and steps towards implementation, you know?  

JOAN: It’s interesting. I just say it has to move from being a function or a series of tactics to being a core value of your organization.  

TOBI: Yes. Yes. I completely agree. Fantastic. Thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been so much fun.  

Where can people learn more about the Nonprofit Leadership Lab? Nonprofits Are Messy. The podcast, the book, get in touch with you?  

JOAN: We call it Joan-landia.  

TOBI: We’ll put all kinds of links to Joan-landia!  

JOAN: So JoanGarry.com – it’s Garry with two R’s – is the sort of the central place. You’ll find things. But if you have a particular interest in the Nonprofit Leadership Lab, it has its own website where you can learn about what you will find inside the lab. And that is conveniently at NonprofitLeadershipLab.com.  

TOBI: Excellent. So if you’re a nonprofit executive, a board member, who’s listening, check out Joan’s Nonprofit Leadership Lab. If you are a leader of volunteers and want your executive or your board to know about this resource, I hope you will share it with them as well.  

JOAN: Amen to that. 

TOBI: Yeah. So have a fantastic rest of your week, Joan, and thank you all for listening to the Volunteer Nation podcast. Join us next week. Same time, same place. And I’ll be back with some more on the Volunteer Nation. Take care of everybody.  

The Volunteer Nation Podcast is produced by Thick Skin Media. Be sure to rate, review, and follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. For more tips and notes from each episode, check us out at TobiJohnson.com.