Janis approaches her first nonprofit board meeting with both excitement and trepidation. She’s energized by the mission and honored by the request to steer the mission forward by joining the board. But at the same time, she’s worried about joining a club with longstanding members she doesn’t know. Maybe she’ll say or do the wrong thing, exposing her ignorance of proper board member behavior.

The safest thing to do, she reasons, is to keep her mouth shut.

Meanwhile Hector, the executive director, hopes Janis’ enthusiasm for fundraising will be infectious with the other board members. While they tend to get involved in the agency’s annual Read-A-Thon begrudgingly, if at all, Janis was a top fundraiser the year before. Hector invited her onto the board to embody a new spirit of fundraising excitement he’s determined to spread throughout the board.

But when the discussion of the Read-A-Thon comes up, Janis, true to her intentions, remains silent. She observes and wonders at the board’s disengagement from the event, its goals, and its outreach.  But she doesn’t feel it’s her place to show up the other board members with her zest for the event.

Unfortunately, over the course of her first year on the board, Janis absorbs the dominant culture, becoming equally disengaged from an event she used to be a leader in. Given how other long-standing board members behave, she figures this isn’t her role as a board member..

Regrettably, Cause Effective sees examples of this sort – fresh, enthusiastic board members ready to fundraise, falling under the spell of a dominant board do-nothing culture – every month. Such hope! Such high expectations! Dashed to pieces against the rocks of board complacency – and a lack of preparation for a cultural change process.

When someone is brought in to an established group as a change agent, you have to tell them that.

It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. You can say something like this: “We’re bringing you on as a breath of fresh air and a change agent. Our board has a number of long-standing members who may have been enthusiastic a while ago, but have lost that edge. [Or, most of our board members were recruited at a time when they didn’t need to fundraise, but we’re facing different circumstances now.] We’re recruiting you, and a few more people like you who will be joining the board in the months to come, to change that culture and give us a fresh start.”

With that conversation, the new board member can enter the boardroom knowing why they’re there, why they’re different, and what their role is. They can be your proactive ally in the process, instead of your unwitting agent.

People always behave better when they know what their job is and have agreed to it!

When you’re bringing several new change agents into the mix at once, such as bringing on a new class of board members, it pays to buddy them up with the long-standing members.  By doing this, you allow the enthusiasm of new members to seed the rest of the board, instead of staying isolated only as a “newbie” trait.

You can establish formal board buddies, or you can (also) pair board members more informally.“Joe, would you work with Patti on reaching out to local bookstores to get ads for the Read-A-Thon Journal? I think the two of you would work well together.” How can Joe, who’s been-there-done-that, say no to that direct request to be a team player?

In actuality, it may be less about Joe showing newcomer Patti the ropes and more about Patti encouraging worn-out Joe to try some new ideas and pound the pavement. Regardless, Joe and Patti together are off to the races, and you’re starting to change the dominant board culture of sitting on one’s hands when it comes to fundraising.

If you want to learn more about how to recruit and onboard change-agent board members, join us for a live online training on July 12: How to Increase Fundraising by Recruiting Great Board Members. You can enroll here.

About the Author(s)

David McGoy (he/him) Founder and President, ASSIST Development Consulting

Gregory Cohen Cause Effective


Governance Boards

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