5 Secrets To Building Trust With Your Nonprofit Board

August 7, 2018

By Jillian Gordon, contributor at the Underground Group

In short:

  • At nonprofits, a strong relationship with your board is critical to longevity.
  • Mizgon Darby is the executive director of Art in Action(opens in new tab), a nonprofit going 35 years strong. Here, she offers five tips for keeping board relations in top shape:
  • Deliver numbers to your board that tell a story, and customize this story to each member’s interests. Provide regular updates to your members, and ask for their weigh-in during critical decisions. Finally, chat often about why—from an emotional standpoint—you both decided to work with this organization in the first place.

One of the truest signs(opens in new tab) of a nonprofit's staying power is the stability of the relationship between the organization and its board. And sometimes, navigating board demands is just as demanding as the organization’s work overall.

For 35 years, nonprofit Art in Action has provided art supplies and an art-forward curriculum—drawing, painting, sculpture and more--to over 300 schools nationwide, with a goal of making art education available to under-resourced students. The organization's longevity and growth are impressive, especially as it operates with just 10 employees.

This success is largely due to a strong relationship with the Art in Action board, according to executive director Mizgon Darby. The relationship hinges on transparent communication, trust and consistency, she told Grow Wire. Below, Darby offers five tips for building strong board relations at your own nonprofit.

1. Tell your board a story, through numbers.

Darby shows her nonprofit board data about how the organization is doing, packaged inside real-life stories about how Art in Action's work is impacting under-resourced students.

Last year, Art in Action was offered a donation of a new ERP software, which would give them important data management and reporting tools. The board had previously asked Darby to scale the business, but still, persuading them to support the use of the new software took some convincing.

"There's always fear in an organization that has had the same structure for a long time to implement something new,” Darby said. “[The board] were supportive, but hesitant."

To convince her board to adopt the software, Darby explained why numbers around donor tracking, social demographics and inventory would be key to growing the organization. Doing so helped her get to yes.

“Our board is amazing, but they are very demanding,” she said. “They’re a working board and want to know what penny is spent where. The number-one rule for fundraising is to be able to have transparency with donors and to be able to tell a story. Numbers tell a story and build trust.”

Thanks to the new data tracking and reporting, Darby announced a 25 percent revenue growth at Art in Action’s board meeting in June, reassuring members the new software was a worthy addition.

2. Customize these stories for individual board members.

(opens in new tab)Some board members may want to know financial specifics, while others may prefer to see photos of student artworks in their updates. (credit: Instagram/_artinaction_(opens in new tab)) 

Art in Action has 18 board members, which Darby describes as an “eclectic mix” ranging from venture capitalists to a corporate VP to mothers who once served as art teachers for the organization.

"Our board represents the communities we serve and also the constituents who donate to us,” she said. “So for that reason, each of our board members requires a different story for the data that we give them.”

Updates and data that resonate with one board member might have little impact on another’s decision making, she added.

“I pull different reports for different members. Our Finance Committee chair may need the nuts and bolts of our financials, but our Development chair needs to know more about the impact our money is having. So I work to customize that data.”

3. Communicate more than once per quarter. 


Think of creative, natural ways to keep in touch with your board, like text messages, social media updates and short weekly emails. 

In the standard (yet unofficial) nonprofit code of conduct(opens in new tab), the board relies on the nonprofit’s internal team to set the cadence of communication. This cadence should be consistent. Poor communication is a top contributor(opens in new tab) to poor board performance and limited overall success, according to a 2017 study from nonprofit consultancy BoardSource.

Don’t wait for quarterly board meetings to review pain points, pressing agenda items or upcoming changes. Instead, communicate with board members regularly by sending weekly updates or progress reports. This allows members to process information well in advance of upcoming meetings and provides reassurance that they are a critical part of each process, BoardSource notes.

4. Ask your board’s opinion during critical decisions.

(opens in new tab)The Art in Action team (above) solicits opinions from its board members when making any large organization-wide decision. (credit: Instagram/_artinaction_(opens in new tab))

It’s important to remember the board relationship is a partnership. Though opinions on particulars may differ, board members aren’t “out to get you” as an organization. And though they may not work in the nonprofit office each day, it’s likely they’re just as concerned with the mission as you are.

So, “talk on a human level, and understand that you are both working toward a common goal,” Darby said. “Really listen to one another. Having open dialogue is critical, and thinking of [board members] as part of the organization is key.” 

When setting a new goal—like developing a strategic plan for organizational sustainability or evaluating new methods of getting art into schools—Darby shares it with her board so the two parties can develop a short-term growth plan together. Getting the board directly involved—rather than simply supplying high-level reporting—strengthens their bond, she said.

“Our board are partners and stakeholders whom we encourage to see our programs in action and be involved with the communities we serve,” she said. “When they see the impact of the program first-hand, they are drawn and committed to ensuring the success of the organization.” 

At your nonprofit, establish a balance between shared responsibilities, and keep the partnership at the heart of all decision-making.

5. Talk about why you all joined in the first place.

Darby (far right) says she's bonded with Art in Action's board members over her childhood experience with art.

A shared vision is essential, but a shared passion for your nonprofit’s cause is the number-one way to build relationships with your board. Both Darby and many of Art in Action’s board members have a personal connection to the nonprofit’s mission, she said, which allows them to collaborate on a level that transcends all business beaureacracy.

“I was an under-resourced child, a child of immigrant parents,” Darby said. “Art was my form of expression. It really helps children process a lot.” 

Whether having previously served as teachers for the program or maintaining a personal connection to art education, Art in Action board members are also committed to the nonprofit’s mission. This shared commitment shapes and strengthens the bond while making strategizing, decision making and goal-setting infinitely easier.

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