3 Tips for Managing “Up:” How to Get Your Board To Do What You Need Them To Do


Managing your board is one of the greatest challenges for every nonprofit leader. And talk about a pain point!

Lots of my nonprofit friends are wildly frustrated by their relationship with their board members:  “Tell me what to do with my board,” a nonprofit colleague once desperately asked me.

That wonderful group of well-meaning volunteers who are in charge of your organization may be cohesive and high-performing — or they just might be dysfunctional and unorganized. (We’ve all been there.)

What is YOUR board like? Are they 100% supportive of you and your initiatives?  Do they respect you and treat you professionally? Do they get along?

There actually ARE some organizational and process strategies you can employ to gently manage them and get what you need out of them.

I’m tackling this tough subject in my next webinar on October 26. I’ll have a world-class organizational development guru on line to take your questions and offer strategies for handling ineffective “group process” or unenlightened board members.

Here are my own hard-earned strategies along with a couple of  war stories:

Your greatest weapon to manage up.

Every smart executive director needs to have a couple of key influencer board members in their back pocket.

They are a couple of people who see eye to eye with you. They trust you and you trust them. These are board members who “get it.”

They should like and admire your leadership. And they have enough confidence in you to stand by your ideas and back you up.

Any director who does not have these board member allies is going to have a miserable experience. And I mean whether you are a CEO or a Development Directors alike.  You need your insider supporters on the board.

How to make sure your ideas get a fair hearing from your board.

Count your votes. Line up your support privately and in person. Don’t leave important discussions to chance.

Never let an issue or subject that’s important to you come to the board for discussion without already having your supporters in line.

Say you need something voted on and passed. Here’s a war story:

Once when I was board president, I had a terrific idea that I really liked and wanted to implement. (we were an all volunteer organization with no staff at the time.) I introduced the idea to the board at our regular board meeting. One member took issue with it and proceeded to turn everybody to her point of view.

Then we took a vote. Few supported me, and her side won. I was voted down. All my energy and enthusiasm went down the drain. I couldn’t believe it. How could MY board do this to me?

Lesson?  Count your votes in advance. If there is something important to you that you really need to get passed by your board, make sure you line up your votes.

Personally visit or call the “key influencers” on your board and have a personal conversation with them about it. Persuade them privately. Secure their support. And secure their vote.

When your issue comes up for discussion, you’ll be able to relax. Your board will give you the support you so urgently need from them.

Moral of the story: Never leave an important discussion to chance.

How to rein in wild ideas from board members.

We all know the syndrome of “boards gone wild.” Check out my other blog post on the subject. : )

And we’ve all been there. Someone on the board pipes up with the strangest, weirdest, most outlandish idea that will never work. And somehow the board members rally around this idea as something that will ‘save’ them or whatever.

Then they are all off like a herd of wild horses, in a stampede, heading in the wrong direction.

And there sits the staff, with their mouths open, wondering what on earth has happened. AND they are wondering how to implement this.

Here’s what you do:

If your allies on the board are present when the stampede looks like its going to start, you can state your case about why you don’t think this is a great strategy. Your board member allies should be able to catch on quickly, especially if you cut them a sharp glance. (Hopefully they are aware enough to read body language.)

If they are daydreaming or distracted, and you can’t get their attention, then do what it takes to get their attention:  go to the bathroom or go get refreshments – move around the room to catch their eye.

Above all, don’t sit there passively and let it happen to you. Do anything you have to do to stop those wild horses from stampeding.

More Secrets for Managing Up and Getting Your Board Members To Do What You Need Them To DO

If you need to get more support from your board members, plan to join me for my next webinar on Monday, October 25 at 1pm ET.

I’m going to share some psychological, motivational and organizational process strategies to give you a real-world, very practical guide for gently managing your board.  You have more power than you think with these folks, but you have to use it subtly and wisely.

I’ll have Dr. Thomas Griggs on the line (who has taught me everything I know about managing boards) to answer YOUR questions and give you a practical framework for figuring out what’s going on in their head so you can respond appropriately. I think this will be fascinating!

Leave me a comment and tell me what you think of my ideas for “gently managing??” What are your own suggestions? : ) I bet there are a lot of war stories out there!