Working with the board with Susan Detwiler

Episode aired July 29, 2021: Working With The Board

Susan Detwiler of The Detwiler Group is a nonprofit strategist and facilitator. When the Board and staff have a harmonious relationship, great things happen. When they don’t… In this episode Susan discusses 

  • the most common source of friction between Board and staff
  • 3 ways to involve the Board in operations and planning
  • 4 reasons for having Board term-limits
  • why frequent meetings between the CEO and Board chair are critical and 
  • what data the Board needs to make decisions.  

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a long-time sector pro, Susan Detwiler. Susan how you doing today?

Susan: I’m doing fine Ephraim. How are you doing?

Ephraim: I’m doing okay thank you. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

When you begin with the shared vision, people work together to make it happen. Susan Detwiler helps organizations align their planning with vision, values and mission. She brings extensive experience in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, including five years as an executive director of the Hillel at University of Delaware and service on several nonprofit boards.

Susan facilitates strategic planning for large and small clients, teaches governance and board relations and facilitates board and staff retreats. Among recent clients are American Public Gardens Association, Delaware Division of the Arts, the Music School of Delaware and Brandywine Zoo. She frequently works with the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement, serving their members in different capacities. Currently Susan is leading the development of the strategic plan for the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.

Susan is a Creating the Future fellow and faculty and trained as a standards for excellence consultant. She earned her BS in business administration from State University of New York at Albany and an MBA from the University of Michigan.

Friction Between The Board And Staff

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss working with the board. Let’s dive right in. Susan, what’s the most common cause or source of friction between boards and nonprofit staff members?  

Susan: Well Ephraim it actually goes all the way back to talking at each other, instead of with each other and getting to know each other as individuals. I think staff needs to realize that the board is not monolithic. It’s a collection of individuals, just like the staff is a collection of individuals. So the frame of reference is very different. Staff eats, sleeps, dreams, worries daily about the organization. Board doesn’t. They’ve got other real jobs. Staff when you say something has to be done soon, it means this week or next. When the board says something needs to be done soon, it means at the next meeting. So it’s really understanding each other’s frame of reference and recognizing that people are people and they’re individuals. I think that’s the biggest source of friction. They don’t look at each other as individuals.

How Often To Meet With The Board

Ephraim: Okay, so I’m the CEO of a nonprofit. How often should I be meeting with my board and what information is critical for me to share with them so they can carry out their responsibilities and duties?

Susan: Well I think we all learned this last year, that the pandemic brought home the need to know more than just financials. The board needs to know what’s going on in the organization, have a sense of its capabilities and its pitfalls so they’re not scurrying to catch up when there’s an emergency.

How often to meet? I honestly think that the CEO of a nonprofit should be meeting with the board chair weekly or bi-weekly maybe by phone and bi-weekly or monthly have coffee or lunch with the board chair. Get to know each other so that you can trust each other and have each other’s back. Not necessarily with an agenda, not just reports. Get to know how each other thinks. You want to be able to relay what’s on each other’s mind, get to know each other, what keeps you up at night and all of those things can lead to having a trust between the board and the staff, the board and the CEO so that if there’s a disagreement, they can work through it because they’ve created some trust with each other. Now the kinds of information- it’s gotta be whatever is on each other’s mind about the organization. That’s really important. They need to know more than just the financials.  

Ephraim: So it’s all about relationship building. Sounds like fundraising.

Susan: Absolutely. That’s fundamental to me is relationship building and I find that the more that people get to know each other as people and not just their title, the smoother things are. It reduces the friction and all the energy and mind bandwidth that goes into dealing with the friction between the board and the staff can then get redirected into delivering mission.

How To Get The Board Involved In Planning

Ephraim: Perfect. Today’s actionable item. Please share with us three ways to get an organization’s board more involved in the operations and short- and long-term planning.

Susan: Board meetings. They have to be focused, actually discuss things. Don’t just listen to reports. Do away with committee reports, have consent agendas, A committee can only bring up in person things that need to be discussed and make sure you only have one or two things to discuss in that board meeting. Don’t wait till the end of the meeting to bring them up when everybody’s all tired. That’s the first one.

Second one is make specific asks of board members not general, like the board needs to do xyz and not just financials. So if at the beginning of each year the CEO and or the board chair have a one-on-one conversation with each board member, you can ask them: How would you like to be contributing to the workings of the organization. This is a one-on-one conversation. Get to know them. Again it’s relationships. Get to know that individual and ask them what they want to do. Maybe they’d like to be an advocate at legislative hall. Maybe they want to be on the marketing committee. But really find out what they want to do. 

Then the third one is, if you’re going to be doing short- and long-term planning, include both board members and staff in that planning. Neither the board nor the staff should create their plans alone. You have to have buy-in from both sides and the way to get buy-in from both sides is have both sides involved in the planning. If the board does that plan by itself, they’re not going to know what’s the impact on the front-line staff. If the staff does it themselves, then the board is abdicating their role as keeper of the mission. So those are my three. One is keep your board meetings focused. Make specific asks of your board members and include both staff and board in your planning.  

Term Limits

Ephraim: All three of those excellent. Talking about the board, let’s go to board term limits. Are you in favor of term limits or no and why? And if you are in favor, how many years should a term last?

Susan: I’ll answer that first one first. I’m in favor of board limits. We do not have the best of all possible worlds, where people know that they should be getting off at a certain time by themselves. So I’m in favor of board limits. I like three-year terms with no more than two consecutive terms before you have to leave the board, for a minimum of a year.

You can come back on later but I have actually four reasons for it and it’s what I use when I’m talking to boards, where everybody has been on it for 10, 15, 25 years at times. If you have term limits, you have an entrée for bringing new people onto the board.

If no one ever rotates off the board, you have no place to put a new person and get new eyes on the organization. Once you have a new person on the board, if there’s no term limits, those new people don’t see a path to more responsibility. They can’t become president, treasurer, secretary if all the top positions were always filled with legacy members. Why should they stay on the board?

With enforced term limits, the board knows it has to find new members. Very often they say well, we can’t find new board members, so I’m just staying on the board. If you know that you have to get off, then you take the time to figure out what kind of people, what attributes, what skill sets, what temperaments you need to bring onto the board in order to fulfill your mission in these new days.

Last one is the one that people tend to forget is, having term limits provides a graceful way for people to exit the board. Very often people stay on the board because they’re expected to stay on the board and sometimes- and actually it happens pretty often- people who rotate off the board can still stay involved in the organization, but they find that they really like having more time to play golf or maybe they want to go and volunteer at another organization and use their skills there, but they can’t leave the board if everybody expects them to stay on. So those are my four reasons. Three-year terms is the way I would recommend. I’ve seen three two-year terms. Problem with the two-year terms that you’re just kind of getting to know everything in that first year and not really able to contribute as much until your second year, so I tend to, if they ask me, I’ll recommend three.

What Data The Board Needs

Ephraim: Okay, so now let’s move on. You’re sitting with the board reviewing last year’s results. What data are you specifically looking at and how do you then use that data to help the board think through the findings and implications?

Susan: Well I hope it’s more frequent than annually that you’re actually looking at your results. If you have a strategic plan, I always build in frequent mile markers and I look at them not as a place to say you didn’t do this but rather why aren’t we achieving this or congratulate yourself for having achieved something at that point. So more frequently than annual but having said that, the data that you’re going over should mirror your plan.

Whatever you’ve said is important to the organization is what you should have metrics for. Let’s say your plan says you want to increase the number of students completing college. Well you don’t just count the number of students enrolled. You track their completion, analyze what you’re doing that’s creating the result. Maybe you want to increase the ability of older people to leave their homes for recreational purposes and you measure not only the number of elders who are on your mailing list or have ever used your service but how often do they take advantage of your services. How would they like to be told of your services, so you can further increase your effect. So the data really relates more to what it is that you’re trying to do.

One of the problems with that I see frequently with boards is they focus on the dollars and cents, which is only one of the metrics. What are you trying to accomplish? What are the metrics for accomplishing your plan, which are then your metrics for accomplishing your mission. That’s what you should be looking at and if it’s not what you’re expecting, then you then take that data and say why. Why yes, so you can do more of the good things but also why no, so that you can course correct before the end of the year. Which is why I’m saying you do it more often than annually.  

Mandatory Board Giving

Ephraim: Yup. Mandatory board giving, yay or nay? 

Susan: Ephraim, I know that’s near and dear to your heart and I voted in your poll. I say yes with caveats. 

It’s not a set amount. It’s not a pay to play and I know several cultural organizations have things like a minimum of five thousand dollars if you’re on the board. That has several other things that could be wrong with it and we don’t have the time to go into it here, but not a set amount.

The amount that people give has to be anonymous, has to be confidential. Nobody on the board knows how much any other person has given. You have to protect the confidentiality of your board members, as well as all of your other donors. That way somebody who’s having a bad streak in their life, they can’t give as much as they have given before, nobody else has to know.

Third, individuals give what they can and I’m of the philosophy and I’ll often tell people this, if you are on a board, it should be one of the top three philanthropies that you give to. So someone who only has the ability to give a hundred dollars to charity in a year because single mom raising two kids it’s hard, they can give fifty dollars to this organization and they’ve given a lot. Somebody who gives five thousand dollars to charity a year can give two grand to this organization and both can say that they’ve made the organization a priority. So yes, sometimes you’ll get people who sit on boards and they only give a hundred dollars a year to charity and they could be giving lots more, but that’s the risk that you take. The confidentiality, not having a set amount and asking that it be one of your top three priorities. I think that works for having board giving.

Ephraim: Okay, I’ll take it. I like that answer. 

Susan: That’s good to know. I don’t know where you actually came down on the other side. I know where you came with that.

Ephraim: I’m both, so that’s why it’s interesting for me to be able to hear the pros in the sector be able to discuss it. So that’s why I asked and I’m glad to get your perspective on it.

Learn More About Susan

Let’s move to the lightning round and learn more about you. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Susan: Well, my undergraduate and graduate was all in business and I started working for medical device firms, doing marketing and marketing research. I was serving on boards. I became a consultant in marketing research. Back in the day volunteered for many local Jewish organizations where I was living in Fort Wayne, Indiana and I found myself spending more time on the volunteer work and on the board work than I did on my own business. So I decided to become I wanted to be a professional in the Jewish communal world. I spent a year interviewing anyone and everyone I knew and didn’t know in that field and I ended up being the executive director of the Hillel at University of Delaware. For those of your audience that doesn’t know, that’s kind of a Jewish campus ministry at University of Delaware. So moved from Fort Wayne to Delaware and after five years missed consulting, hung out my shingle as a consultant to nonprofits and here we are. 

Ephraim: Fantastic. So given all your years in the nonprofit world, if there’s one thing you could shake up in the nonprofit sector, what would it be?

Susan: Oh I knew this question was coming. I’d say stop thinking like a corporation with the accompanying paranoia. Run the organization with an organizational mindset, a business mindset but don’t have that paranoia that so many corporations has that your mission isn’t being the best at solving a homeless problem. Your mission is to ensure that there are no people who have no homes and so by looking at it that way, it opens you up to looking around and saying, who can we partner with? Who can we collaborate with? Who might be doing it better than we are that we can help them do it because our mission is the people, not our business. So I’d say that one of the things that I would change is stop focusing on your own turf. Look beyond your own organization to see how you can best serve your mission, whether it’s your organization or somebody else’s.

Ephraim: That’s a wonderful wonderful answer. Thank you. Susan, why Delaware?  

Susan: You heard the part about trying to then become a Jewish professional somewhere in the country. My husband and I were living in Fort Wayne, Indiana. We made some decisions that we wanted to be within one day’s driving time of one of our families. We needed it to be a large enough city that if I found a job and it didn’t work out, we didn’t have to move again. It had to have a large enough Jewish population because that was my interest. That’s what I was interested in doing. So we took a map of the United States, stuck it on the dining room table, drew some lines and said, where should I look? My sister lives in Westchester, Pennsylvania which is about 20 miles from here. My other sister’s in New Jersey. Not too far and I ended up in Delaware. I love it. I love it.

Ephraim: I love that story. That’s fantastic. What draws you to working with public gardens, arts and culture organizations?

Susan: Well personally a while back, I realized that every time I walk in a woods or a garden or a park, within five minutes I realize that I’m grinning. I mean it’s just completely… I’m not thinking about it or anything. I just realized I’m smiling. So green spaces like gardens and zoos and parks, they’ve always been important to me. I have no idea why but I think it’s important that every municipality needs to raise the quality of life of their residents by spending more attention on the green spaces.

Now I’m just going to throw this out there. There’s a 20-degree difference in an urban area and a suburban area, because the suburban area has a green cover, has trees. It has a canopy versus a downtown urban area and what does that do for the people who are living in some of those urban areas that are already nothing but cement? There’s a huge difference and that temperature difference can make a huge difference in people’s lives. So that’s one reason.

But the other one is five years ago, I was very fortunate to be contacted by someone at Longwood Gardens, which is a big one of the world-class gardens outside of Philadelphia, to teach a series of seminars on governance and board relations to a cohort of middle managers. I’m looking forward to working with the fourth cohort this fall. The more I learn about gardens, the more I love them. 

Arts and culture was happenstance. I ended up with one or two clients that were in that field and eventually I found my book of business becoming more and more arts and culture oriented, as people realized that’s what I was doing. And I learned in my first business, which was consulting and marketing research, that if you specialize, you can be better at it. By saying I’m going to focus on arts and culture and green spaces, I can stay up on all the blogs and the news and the controversies and the challenges of those particular areas and as I find information that’s useful to my clients. Because I’ve been doing that, I can send it out to them and I’ve become so immersed in the field that I know what their challenges are. So that’s how it ended up being arts and culture.

Ephraim: Perfect. Tell us about a favorite mentor and what you learned from them.

Susan: Is it a cliché to say it was my mom?

Ephraim: Not at all.

Susan: I remember a couple of things that she said, of blessed memory. I think the most important one that I remember is how do you know if you don’t try. I remember winning an award to do some research and I get the letter in the mail and I run to the backyard where my mom’s hanging up clothes and I start crying because I was sure that I couldn’t do the research. Yes, I had applied for the scholarship and I was like oh no, now I have to do it and my mom just looked at me and says, how do you know if you don’t try. That’s been something I’ve carried with me since junior high school.

Ephraim: I love that. Perfect. Lastly, we will turn the table. You get to ask one surprise question. I have no idea what’s coming. Susan, go ahead.

Susan: I absolutely love your newsletters. I know so much of it is focused on fundraising but as you said, it covers a whole gamut of things. I read them. It’s one of the first ones I read every day, I’ll tell you that. But it’s partly because you write it so amusingly and you add your own nuggets at the very beginning and at the end. How do you find the time to find and read all the things that you can then cull those humorous articles, the Instagram photos, the tweets, the whatever. How do you find the time to do all that?

Ephraim: What did your mom say? If you don’t try… I’ll tell you. It’s very simple actually.  

For years, way over a decade, I read a lot online. There was a time when I actually… I wanted to see how much I actually read. I was getting through about 150 articles and posts a day. That’s how much I read. Now that’s a lot.

Susan: How do you find time for your business? I know that’s the second question. I’m only allowed one. 

Ephraim: I was always reading anyway, so I’m already reading all that amount to learn because I’m a very big believer in the hashtag #AlwaysBeLearning. So I’m already spending all that time to learn. I am reading a lot of articles, which means I have already enough information and material to put in the newsletter. I am also a subscriber to quite a lot of newsletters, whether they be daily or weekly and they have quite… it spans quite a lot of different sectors and niches. It’s not all in nonprofit. There’s a lot of for-profit stuff, tech and other things that I’m interested in and there’s plenty of stories going on there that I can take out from.

And then there’s Twitter, which is always full of crazy stories and the latest whatever Florida man did and whatever this person did and whatever craziness is going on or the funny stuff or the wacky stuff. So I’ve got this huge amount of content open to me, which allows me to then cull what I need and then put it in the newsletter so that I can keep my subscribers entertained. Because if my subscribers get bored, they’re going to unsubscribe. I kind of feel that… I put it out four days a week. I kind of feel that every single day is brand new and today is that day that somebody might unsubscribe, so I’ve got to bring it. I can’t take any days off. That’s how I do it.

Susan: Wow wow. I really love the idea that what you said  about reading things that are not in your niche. I totally agree with that. Totally. I know I said that I focus on those arts and culture blogs and everything but to subscribe to Inc. and find articles from Inc. that are applicable to subscribe to… New York Times and find things that are applicable to my clients or to the nonprofit world. You can’t just stay in your own world because you don’t know what’s going on out there that you can still learn from, so that’s great. 

Ephraim: I started the newsletter because I think a lot of times nonprofit people stay in their box. If I’m a fundraiser, I only read articles about fundraising and grant writing and maybe capital campaigns. But marketing is tied to it and so is SEO and google searches and so is web design and so is a hundred other things. So if you don’t have time to find it, I’ll bring it to your inbox and now you don’t have to go searching for it. I’m going to bring the information to you so you can learn on your time, when you have a little bit of free time to read and you can expand your knowledge. That was the one of the reasons for doing the newsletter.

Susan: It’s appreciated.

Ephraim: Thank you. I appreciate the compliment and I’m glad that you are a subscriber.

Thank you very very much for appearing on the podcast today. I encourage everyone to connect with Susan on LinkedIn, learn more about her work on her website and also make sure to check out her YouTube channel under her name, Susan Detwiler, where you can learn from her expertise and experience in facilitation of meetings. Susan, it was a pleasure learning from you today. Thank you.

Susan: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity. I’ve enjoyed it.

Ephraim: My pleasure. Have a great day.

Susan: You too.