Developing High-powered Boards

Do you struggle with your board? Are your members not as engaged as you wish they were? Do you dream of a high-functioning group of partners who are just as invested as you are in the organization’s health? Join us as we talk to Hardy Smith about turning your board into the dream team you need.


0:04 Cynthia Rojas

Hi, everyone. Welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds. Are you struggling with board engagement? Do you wish your board members offered you more support and saw themselves as partners in the mission, in growing the mission of your organization? Well, if you answered yes to any of these, then this is your show. Stay tuned for Coffee Time with Masterminds.

0:37 CTMM jingle

1:04 Cynthia Rojas

Hi, everyone. That was a slow beginning. I felt all quiet like I was whispering but, welcome to this amazing Friday morning. It is. I am Cynthia Rojas Coffee Time with Masterminds – a 30-minute conversation with and for mission-based leaders, or leaders of mission-based organizations. And we want to welcome our viewers in the USA and our listeners in Australia, and if you are joining us this morning, please give us your name and where you’re from in the comments. We always love to hear who is joining us

Today, we have a treat. I am joined by Hardy Smith, author of the book, Stop the Non-profit Board Blame Game – How to break the cycle of frustrating relationships and benefit from fully engaged boards. I have to tell you, this is a hot topic.Hardy has been dedicating his work to solving the problem many mission-basedleaders have and that is board engagement. So, let’s bring Hardy on.

2:17 Hardy Smith

Hello, Cynthia, and I certainly appreciate the opportunity to visit with yourself and I know Pieta’s in the background there. Hey, Pieta. I look forward to sharing a great conversation and maybe some entertainment value for your Coffee Time with Masterminds viewers and listeners. Thank you.

2:39 Cynthia Rojas

We love entertainment, that’s for sure. Oh, my God, Hardy, you know, I’ve been consulting for three years and before that I was in a non-profit sector for almost 20 years, and I have to tell you, everyone complains about board members and I have a theory. But before we get into my theories, I want to hear from you. How did you get into this work and what inspired the book?

3:08 Hardy Smith

Well, Cynthia, thank you for that great question. As you might expect I get asked that question quite frequently. Well first, let me explain. My professional background includes 30 years in the high-performance world of NASCAR racing. Now, I was not a driver.

3:31 Cynthia Rojas


3:32 Hardy Smith

I was involved in the business of the business and really, my one or two sentence job description, my mandate, was to identify potential problems or opportunities before they existed and make sure that problems did not happen, or make sure that the identified opportunities did happen.

So, fast forward to creating my own consulting business, professional speaking business for the non-profit sector. I apply that same experience in NASCAR racing and and for those that not familiar with that, it’s all about winning and. And so, every single week after a race the winning team will tear their car apart nut by nut bolt by bolt. Why would you do that? You just won the race. Cynthia, you want to find out why you won, so you can replicate the same result the next week, right?

4:41 Cynthia Rojas


4:42 Hardy Smith

Well, then everyone else who finished second through last place goes through the same exercise. They tear their car down. They want to find out why they didn’t win and make sure they don’t make those mistakes again. So, I apply somewhat of a contrarian, got to challenge everything, take it apart, why does it work, can I help fix it — to the non-profit sector. And of course, over several decades of involvement with  non-profit groups across the country, I’ve experienced and saw what you have have articulated. There is such angst, such a high level of frustration that is connected to non-profit board engagementI .

So, set out on a quest very simply, that whole contrarian mindset. One is, it worked the way this works. Aren’t there any better answers? I wanted to find the answer to, why don’t board members do what they’re supposed to do? So, hat led me on a quest to identify exactly why. I believe I’ve done that and that initial research eventually was developed and to stop the non-profit board blame game. And the book and the research I did was all from the board member perspective. So, that’s what’s different about the book and I look forward to sharing some of those nuggets.

6:35 Cynthia Rojas

Well, I have to tell you, that one of the interesting things is that the the blaming is going in both directions and leaders are frustrated. And you would think that at some point we get this part right. Non-profits are not a new concept. Board membership is not a new concept. I’ll tell you my theory and I tell it to a lot of leaders in all of my networks, in all of my dinner conversations with friends and when I was a child, I have never nor have I ever heard anyone say, “When I grow up I want to be a board member.” And when you don’t have a road map—so, if I said I wanted to be a doctor, I have an idea of what that takes, right. If I want to be a lawyer, I have an idea. But board membership, Hardy, my friends don’t talk about becoming board members. So, we’re not exchanging information and that’s the first thing leaders need to realize, is that there’s not a playbook necessarily, right. We didn’t go to college to become board members and so, we walk into this role not knowing exactly what to do and then we’re expected to know what to do.

8:12 Hardy Smith

Well, let me if I may pick up on… I like your terminology, Cynthia, about a playbook. I’m going to for conversation purposes I’m going to take a different viewpoint. I’m going to say there is a playbook. The only thing is, the plays are the wrong plays. And in the world of non-profits, my experience with the sector is we tend to follow what we think are best practices. You know, we went to a seminar, we went to a conference. We read somebody’s book. We heard a speaker.

And so, we have these best practices. Or we hear from our colleagues in the sector, our fellow executive directors and CEOs. So, our practices around board relationships, board engagement, board recruiting, are not getting the results that we would like to have. So, we’ve all heard you know that old saying about you know, what’s it called when you keep doing the same things and expecting a different result?

9:29 Cynthia Rojas


9:30 Hardy Smith

We’ve all heard that, right? And so, my suggestion is you’ve got to rethink. You’ve got to totally rethink your so-called best practices because they’re not working. And there are some reasons that I’ve been able to identify with the benefit of board member insight –not staff, but board member insight, and part of those reasons have shown me what creates the disengagement. And at the top of the list and that’s what led ultimately to the blame game book title, was that while professional staff are pointing the finger and blaming board members for not being as engaged as they would like for them to be, the other side of that and the big reveal is that there are so many board members in the sector who are not happy with their board service experience, and they’re blaming non-profit staff because of that. So now, with the two fingers of blame pointing to each other, that is the non-profit board blame game. to each other that is the non-profit board blame game.

11:00 Cynthia Rojas

Yes, yes. And you know, in your book, which I have to tell you, Hardy, so, we met a couple of months ago and you mentioned your book and as part of the conversation and I looked it up and I thought oh, my, like every leader should read this book –and every board member.

11:20 Hardy Smith

Thank you.

11:21 Cynthia Rojas

And so,  I’ve been in that position where I’ve been on the board and did not enjoy my time there and as a consultant and being from the outside looking in, it’s clear to me often –often, not all the time, but what’s going on, right. And so, when I asked leaders, do you meet with your board members one-on-one and get to know them as people? I have learned that there are EDs who have never met with their board members one-on-one. I worked with an ED who said the only board member he talks to is his board chair. And I thought, oh, wow. So, partnering to work toward the mission, executing the mission of a non-profit organization is challenging to do if you don’t know each other.

12:16 Hardy Smith

Absolutely right, and it’s all about relationships and establishing good, Solid, positive relationships. And every time I do either staff training or board development training, or a combination of both groups together and that could be interesting, but when I ask what’s the most important key to a good, successful, positive long-term relationship? Cynthia, a hundred percent of the time and so by asking your audience here on on Coffee Time with Masterminds, you know… I’ll ask your audience, what’s the most important key to a successful, long-term positive relationship?

13:12 Cynthia Rojas


13:13 Hardy Smith

And if I could see the responses, probably I’m going to say it’s going to track a hundred percent of the time with the responses I always get, and it’s about communication. It’s about communication. And it’s not more communication another report, another email. It’s about effective communication.

13:37 Cynthia Rojas


13:38 Hardy Smith

And so, without getting into a whole communication dynamic seminar here… that’s another talk for another visit for another time… but what’s the most important part of good communication? Listening. So, here are a couple of quick tips for our non-profit uh leader friends and CEOs and executive directors. The results from my research: board members have told me the number one reason good board members become disengaged is because of poor communication.

14:22 Cynthia Rojas


14:23 Hardy Smith

So, there’s poor communication in the recruiting phase. There’s poor communication, or even no communication in the orientation, in the onboarding, the training phase. There’s no positive good productive communication in the board service phase of the relationship. I’ve had board members suggest –it’s one of my favorite articles on my blog at about are you treating your board members like mushrooms?

So, keeping them in the dark and you know what and are you covered up with –well, you know what mushrooms are covered up with real houses to make –so, do your board members feel like mushrooms? And a lot of times that’s the case. So, again, not more communication, but timeliness. Are they getting information prior to a board meeting so that they can digest it and be prepared to ask questions, engage in conversation?

15:37 Cynthia Rojas

Hardy, I want to mention something there, because one thing that’s really interesting about your book is that you present information that are opposing tensions, right. So, one of the things you mention is how we expect too much of board members but we don’t communicate enough. Well, those are two opposing tensions, right. So, if you expect a lot, then you should communicate better. And I thought, wow, that’s a paradox. That’s not good. There’s a lot of complexity there. You also mention how we expect our board members to read the material before a meeting and we’re sending the material –complex –let me see… yes, you said complex information a day in advance.

And so, again, we didn’t go to school to become board members. So, I for one would need help reading a financial statement. So, if you send it to me and I’m supposed to realize just by reading this that we have some financial vulnerability, I think that’s a little unfair. And so, I love that.

16:58 Hardy Smith

Well, thank you so very much. And another couple of quick tips on being better at communicating is anticipate in advance what do your board members need to know and what do they want to know and then thirdly, how do they want to receive your information. So, for our non-profit professionals that are viewing the stream or listening in Australia, just close your eyes for a moment. Visualize your boardroom. Visualize all of those faces of board members around the board table, okay. Well, while you’re visualizing all those faces, Cynthia, think about this. Every single individual that you mentally have a picture of has an individual and unique communication preference that’s unique to them. And by that, I mean how do they want to receive information? What communication channel do they want to receive whatever information you’re going to share? And do they want a full report or will a couple of just bullet points suffice or somewhere in between?


What about that personal meeting that you shared with earlier? What about a phone call prior to the meeting? Now, I know exactly what your non-profit professionals who are watching are listening are saying, “Great, Hardy, we’re already overworked and understaffed and you’ve just added more to do on my to-do list.

18:44Cynthia Rojas


18:45 Hardy Smith

My pushback there, if that’s your thought, then I would ask you, how bad do you want it? How bad do you want a positive, productive relationship with your board members. And I would suggest that this advanced communication, extra attention extra time and I say invested in advanced communication with your board members, especially the ones that might tend to be a little more difficult in a board meeting, actually will pay off in the long run because you will have improved relationships. And some of those that are less than positive, this will help you diffuse some of that; may not make them go away, but you can defuse some of that.

19:40 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah. You’re making great points. AndI was thinking, as you were saying, it’s like parenting, right. How do we know as parents to work together if we’re not talking about how to care for the child and so, if you think of the child as the non-profit, that partnership becomes really important and a huge investment in the long run. What what what I would add to what you’re saying in terms of Eds –and yes, I hear it all the time, “Really, Cynthia? You don’t think I have enough work,” is, are you doing the right work? If you don’t have time to build relationships with your board members then you need to review what it is that you’re doing and perhaps you’re doing things that you could move on to another staff person because that is your role, and it pays off tenfold; it pays off tenfold.

I do want to mention something that I think is being tested now in this virtual environment, but it’s also been my experience that board members do not go into board membership wanting to feel isolated, wanting to feel like they’re not important. And so, it is important—this is why building relationships; we don’t volunteer so we could feel more alone. We volunteer because for a lot of us there’s a strong social aspect to it. So, if I’m volunteering and you’re not reaching out to me and you’re not asking me how I’m doing and you know nothing about me and I never see you except when I have to make a decision that’s really important and no one you know described it to me, it goes against why I’m there.

And yet, Hardy, and here’s my question: many boards have moved to virtual meetings and I’m meeting board members who’ve never met anyone on the board in person. How is that in your opinion, in your experience affecting how boards relate to one another, how board members relate to one another?

22:19 Hardy Smith

Cynthia, that is a terrific question and I would answer that with another challenge question for our audience. Are you letting virtual online meetings be an excuse for not creating the type of engagement and connectivity that you want? We know better than that. Now, in person is always better than online. Absolutely. I think there’s a hundred percent agreement to that, but there are times because of scheduling, perhaps because of distance, board members are from all over the country or all over the state or region, and online is is really the preferred way it’s the best way to meet. However, there are tools and processes for running a very engaging and very productive and positive board meeting.

So, how skilled is the organization? Is your board chair who’s leading the meeting or staff who’s leading the meeting, are they skilled at online engagement building facilitation? So, are you using the tools and the techniques? And you know, whether it’s in person or whether it’s online, Cynthia, you have got to make meetings matter so back to your point about why board members are joining. Not only do they want that social aspect that we all are interested in, you know what else they’re looking for. They’re wanting to make an impact. They’re wanting to make a difference. And they’re also very busy and they’re time constricted, but for the moment they’ve dedicated a certain block of time to your non-profit, to your calls, okay. So, at the end of the Meeting, was your meeting worth their time? Was the meeting full of reports after reports after reports there’s no time for questions, there’s no time for engagement, there’s no time for socialization –and you can do that online just as well—

So, you’ve got to make meetings matter. You’ve got to make meetings matter so that your board members who have busy schedules, they have lots of options for attending other activities. And are you making your meetings a not to be missed meetings? So, you take other meetings off their schedule. “No, no, there’s no question. I will be at this meeting. I would not miss it.” That’s critical to creating a good, positive board experience.

25:20 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah. I think I’m going to bring you back just to talk about meetings because now you’ve piqued my interest. But there is something I have to ask because I run into this issue a lot, working with leaders of non-profit organizations. There are companies that require their staff to be on boards and so, those board members tend to do it because it’s a requirement. I survey a lot of board members and I love to talk on the phone with the board member and he says, “Listen, you know it’s part of my job. We work in the community bank,” or “We work at a utility company and I have to do this,” and I just wonder, how can we turn that around? Because they also tend to be –can be—and I don’t want to point the finger at all of them because there are some that although it’s part of their job they love doing that part, but how can we turn that around in terms of engagement so that they are not doing it as a job requirement but they’re inspired to do it?

26:35 Hardy Smith

Oh, I just love that and that’s one of my favorite parts in the in the book. So, if I could walk this back just a little bit. So, one of the key reasons why—so, our non-profit professionals, I want you to put down whatever you’re doing and pay a hundred percent attention right now. If you don’t get anything else, get this. One of the reasons your board members are not doing what they’re supposed to do is you have the wrong people, and the reason you have the wrong people is you are not recruiting board members with purpose and process. You have to have intentionality. You can’t settle for what I call slot fillers. Slot fillers can be great people like you’ve just suggested, Cynthia, but they are not the best fit as a board member for your particular organization.

I don’t care if they’ve been on a dozen, two dozen other boards. That doesn’t mean they’re the best for your organization. So, organizations, non-profits can get much better expectation results by recruiting board members with purpose and process.

28:07 Cynthia Rojas

I love this and I quoted something in your book because I thought this was such a powerful quote and I think everyleader should have it on their wall. “If you want to condemn an organization to Failure, put the wrong people on the board.” And I thought, that’s it! That’s it!

28:29 Hardy Smith

Boom, that’s it! You’re right. But we keep insisting on following recruitment practices that do not get the results that we want or need. So, come on, nonprofits, we’ve got to change this. And you can.

28:52 Cynthia Rojas

And you gave an example of an organization, one of the boys and girls club. You did just that. And I love examples because one of the things that I struggle with is don’t just tell me how to do it right. Show me someone who’s doing it right. I need to see it in action. We have about a minute left. Do you have a turnaround success story?

29:19 Hardy Smith

Gosh, there’s so many. I’ll have to confess I haven’t thought about a a particular one. But there’s so many organizations that are out there that once they realize here’s the need and here’s how we can make a difference, just kind of a universal template not a particular organization identified. There are plenty that are out there in post-COVID, during COVID,  post-COVID, you know, it’s all about can we survive? Can we remain relevant? Can we move forward and the lessons and stop the non-profit board blame game? Say yes, you can and here’s a way forward.

30:07 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah. Oh, my God.

30:09 Hardy Smith

Create your board as a high value asset.

30:14 Cynthia Rojas

Yeah, I love that. There’s so much more to talk about. I didn’t even ask you about the different generations and their values and what that’s looking like. There’s so much more so we’re definitely going to ask you to come back. Hardy, this has been amazing and my hope is that our viewers and listeners take away as much and even more than I did when I read your book. And so, for those who are watching, Hardy Smith is the author of Stop the Non-profit Blame Game, and trust me, you will walk away a better leader for your board if you read that book. Thank you so much and we’ll see you all next week

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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