Last week, I attended my first meeting of a board I just joined.

I’m a board veteran. I’ve served on several boards of directors and as a consultant and fundraising professional, I’ve worked with lots of different boards as a nonprofit staffer. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many board meetings I’ve attended through the years. But it’s been a while since I joined a board with a fresh set of eyes.

It was a great experience because it reminded me of what the view of the room is like from the seat of a board member. This should be a requirement for all nonprofit staffers!

The board meeting I attended was a very positive meeting—the staff members shared the many things on which they had been working. Their enthusiasm was fantastic. They’re doing a good job of breaking the mold, of taking a well-established ministry and finding new ways to deliver services, engage the people they are serving, and run the organization. Altogether, they’re impressive.

But I sat in the room, thinking things like “How can I help?” and “Ideally, what would they like for me to do?” (other than give, of course). I was definitely interested, but I didn’t know what I could do to be useful to them.

At other moments during presentations and discussions, I could think of lots of ways that I could help them, but wasn’t sure if that was the help they wanted from me. I can see I found myself wondering if they wanted my expertise put to work on behalf of the cause, if they knew all the different things that were a part of my skill set, or if I would just be pushy/overbearing/obnoxious if I offered help.

In 7 Ways to Effectively Ask For Help (and Get it), Dr. Alice Boyes says “Don’t make someone guess what you want.” She writes that she often travels alone with a toddler. She finds that people are perfectly willing to help, but often don’t think to volunteer because they’re so stuck in their heads about their own lives or they simply don’t know how to help. Tim Herrera, editor of New York Times’ Smarter Living, calls this “inattentional blindness.”

I suspect this is often the case with our board members (like me!). They are perfectly willing—glad even—to help, they’re just not sure that they know how to help or what kind of help you do or don’t want.

Tonight, while thinking about all of this my husband and I got a call from a young adult, a graduate student we’ve met through work.  He is visiting the Atlanta area and unexpectedly needed a place to stay. “Come on over,” we said. We were sincerely happy to open our doors. In fact, it brightened our day to be asked. Research supports this also, finding that the same parts of the brain that are activated when you meet your basic needs (like food) light up on a fMRI when someone is asked to give help.

We need to remember to let our board members know what they can do to help. I have no doubt that many of them don’t know (they have inattentional blindness) but they’d be delighted to help if we’d only ask.

In getting ready for board meetings, we all rush around making copies, finishing reports and adding data to dashboards. In the midst of that preparation, we also need to remember to reflect on what our board members can do to help. What exactly do we want from them in response to the presentations we give? If we don’t identify it before the meeting and articulate it during the meeting, we miss out on a wonderful opportunity when we’re all face-to-face to mobilize forces of good for our organization and to offer board members a meaningful way to feed their souls.

Think about it, my nonprofit Super Hero friends: how do you want to light up your board members’ brains? A good chicken salad will do it, but so will a request for help.

Image Source: – Used with permission.

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