Monday, February 10, 2014

Ember's Board of Directors - Everything You Wanted to Know

I've had a few people in the past few months ask me lots of questions about my board of directors: who did you invite to the board, how do you interact with them, what is their role...and questions along those lines. This post is to try and answer most of these kinds of questions all about the Board of Directors for The Ember Cast.

As soon as Ember was approved by the IRS for its 501C3 status, I knew that I needed to put together a board - it's actually required if you are a nonprofit. I took about 6 months in thinking through it and going through a list of people that I knew well and was interested in. At the core, I chose individuals for the board who had a proven history of being advocates and patrons for student missions. They all have experience in this niche area and almost all of these people worked with me during my time with SPACE, a missions component of a student ministry for a local suburban megachurch.

As a side note, you might think that Ember 'started' in 2009. The reality is that what is now Ember was seeded in 2003 when SPACE started and even somewhat before. Lots of pivotal experiences helped me launch Ember and sometimes things start long before you think they did.

The Characters
Leslie was a student when I worked with SPACE and eventually was one of our first students turned into leaders. She gravitated towards our vision and goals and eventually helped me lead four different teams. She works full time in the social sphere.
Greg is a serial technology entrepreneur whose 3 kids we know well and 2 of whom traveled with me around the world. Greg brings an invaluable startup mindset as a small business founder and owner.
Matt is a technology professional and was involved with student small groups for 12 years - in a row. He has multiplied dozens of leaders whose full impact is still yet to be felt.
Dale is a certified StrengthsCoach - combine that with being a maximizer and a soccer coach and he pushes us to be better than we were and to unearth potential that we might not see. He works full time in the construction management field.
Joyce was at a breakfast at the beginning of when our church decided to get serious about involving students in local and global service. That meal together was the beginning of a long arc of impact. Joyce works full time in finance so she brings a financial perspective to us.

How they were chosen
Most conventional thinking about boards is that they bring influence and cash. They are supposed to have lots of connections and in turn can create lots of financial backing. I didn't care for much this advice. Instead I chose two principles that I wanted our Board to be chosen around. First I wanted people that I trusted and people that were passionate about student missions and the impact that could have in the world. Second, I wanted a personal board of advisers. Putting the board together takes intention and thought - I thought of it like a dinner party where you want the best talents and passions of your friends to mingle together through a grand evening. Each guest and what they bring to the table matters.

For more insight into these ideas, read the following articles. I don't agree with everything written in these posts, but there is a lot of wisdom in all of them.
Wanted: A Great Board Chair
The Three Stages of Board Development
A Personal Advisory Board

Board Responsibilities
Responsibilities of this Board are minimal. We have board meetings twice a year [although last year we only had one] and that's the forum where I communicate what we have done and where we are going on a broad scale.

The Board has an open invite to anything that we do. Some of the members have jumped in to various events. There is a wide spectrum on what each of them personally wants to be involved in - some want to stay at the advisory level and some want to jump in here and there. And of course, this is only one small sliver of their lives and leadership. Getting them engaged outside of Board meetings is a topic that I think about a lot.

On certain occasions I have engaged specific members of the Board for specific time bound projects, seeking to leverage their experience and expertise. Dale has done some Strengths coaching for our ProtoGuides. Leslie has connected and given advice to people interested in human trafficking due to working at IJM for a season. Joyce helps me set up archaic accounts in Quickbooks. Greg has listened to me over lunch when I gripe about people saying they are interested but never committing - a common complaint when you are starting something new. Matt has joined teams on community service experiences and joined us in 2012 in AZ for a week with a team.

Although I report to the Board, they give me wide latitude about running The Ember Cast. We have not, until now at least, ran into any issues where the Board has to reign me in. We might get there one day. They are Ember's best advocates and although we don't interact day to day, I know they take the responsibility very seriously.

During the first two years of Ember's existence, my communications during our board meetings were, shall I say, mediocre at best. They were simple bullet points on a piece of paper. In the midst of that, I started to realize that the Board, even as my biggest fans, deserved my very best. And during one board meeting, I found myself clammy and sweaty as I was going through our notes. I was legitimately nervous speaking to friends that I had known for, in some cases, a decade. Later on, I understood this simple truth: Your board deserves your absolute best and I was sweaty because I was not delivering.

To that end, I now put together a PowerPoint deck with images that serve to tell our story. This deck gets professionally printed and bound and each Board member gets their own copy. If they spend their attention on Ember, they deserve more than a printed Word document. Pay attention to the details and go out of your way to make their time matter. I also print a few extras and have given those to other people who are interested in what they do. Financial details are given out on a separate handout.

During the school year, I also write a staff email almost religiously every Sunday. This email goes to our Board as well as ProtoGuides and Guides and serves to over-communicate to everyone. It is broken up until Past, Upcoming and Future sections and I try to list everything and more. Just this week, I added a Prayer section too, something that I have been personally lacking in on our orgs behalf - hopefully this changes that. Sometimes I throw in something good to read or a provocative quote too. The decision to write a consistent email every week was one of the best decisions I have made in the past few years.

It seems like most people that ask these types of questions about the Board of Directors are in the midst of starting some kind of nonprofit project themselves. What I hear from them is that the task of filling out 501C3 paperwork is daunting and assembling a board is insurmountable. Let me tell you instead, first, that filling out IRS paperwork is easier than doing your taxes. If you know your mission and vision, if you have some clarity on your offerings, and if you have some things you have actually executed, the paperwork will be easy for you. Give lots of thought to those things and that will lead to you finding the right Board.

What is harder than IRS paperwork and the assembling of a board is your great task of changing the world. Articulating your passion, leading your tribe and igniting those around you is the real challenge. But the world needs you doing this. So worry about those things. And one fine evening, your Board will be delighted sitting at the table with you, marveling in the different courses and offerings and tastes of how you have changed the world.

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