3 Board Building Lessons from Big League Baseball
This article by Kevin Monroe was originally published in Centerview, a monthly e-publication of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits providing sector insights, new & highlights, funding and grant opportunities and resources. Sign up for a complimentary subscription to Centerview here. Learn more about GCN at www.gcn.org.
Nonprofit organizations should operate more like a baseball team! That may be a new idea for you. I’m certain you’ve been told that “nonprofits should be run more like a business!” But a baseball team, seriously? Yup, and here's my pitch:
Over the last year, I’ve considered a few practices and patterns used by Major League Baseball (MLB) teams that provide our sector with some valuable lessons. Specifically, there are insights regarding developing tiers of leadership roles and adopting a dynamic approach to board member recruitment.
In my consulting practice, I’ve observed that many nonprofit boards don’t address their future need for board members in advance of an actual need. Rather, it’s the vacancy on the board that triggers the search.
This approach to board member recruitment, then, is often a “shot in the dark,” hoping that the new recruit is passionate about the cause, will faithfully fulfill their board duties, and ideally, will energetically leverage their relationships on behalf of the organization.
Is that how they do it in the big leagues? I don’t think so. Since a new MLB season has just begun, let’s explore three lessons on team building from the big leagues.
Lesson 1 - Recruit early, recruit often.
Don’t wait for an injury to begin recruiting, build a bench of talent now.
Recall last season when Chipper Jones, the All-Star third baseman for the Atlanta Braves went on the disabled list? Imagine if the Braves’ General Manager, Fredi Gonzalez led the Braves the way some folks lead their nonprofit boards.
The conversation might have gone like this:
One board member asks, “does anybody know where we can find a good third baseman?”
“Do they need experience?” chimes another.
“We can do without a third baseman for a few games, can’t we?” asks another.
“Do you think we can wait until next year when we have our annual elections to find a replacement?”
Sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it, when you apply that kind of thinking to a baseball team?
So what did the Braves do when an All-Star was suddenly sidelined? They activated a back-up, in this case, Brandon Hicks, from their Triple-A Gwinnett Braves to take Jones’ place on the roster.
You see, the Braves, like all MLB teams, know that the average career of a player is 5.6 years (according to a study by a research team from the University of Colorado at Boulder), so they recruit in advance of the actual need to ensure that they have a bench of talented players ready to step up and step in at a moment’s notice when players are injured, traded or retire.
What about nonprofits?
According to BoardSource, in data collected for the 2010 Governance Index, the average tenure of a nonprofit board member is 7.2 years. Board members, like MLB players, will eventually move on to other pursuits and it’s wise to anticipate those transitions in advance and have replacements ready to fill both planned and unexpected vacancies.
MLB teams take their recruiting efforts so seriously that every team has a robust talent development process known as the "farm system," which leads to our second lesson.
Lesson 2 - Grow your own leaders by creating multiple paths for leadership development.
MLB uses a multi-tiered talent development system that serves as its feeder pool preparing those who make it to the big league. In fact, there are 5 distinct classes in the current farm system: Triple-A, Double-A, Single-A, Class A Short Season, and Rookie. The farm system operates like a funnel: many enter the system, but few ever make it to the big leagues.
There’s a lot here that can help nonprofit boards and organizations. Rather than having the board as the only place where volunteers can get involved and exercise leadership, consider creating various points of entry into your leadership development system.
Beginning levels may include those who volunteer at one of your programs, attend a community outreach event, or connect with you through a social media channel (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.). As they learn more about your organization, they may take steps toward greater involvement. Perhaps they become a regular funder or volunteer, or engage by actively recruiting their family and friends to get involved as well. As participation increases, they may join a committee, lead some type of service or outreach project for the organization, or introduce your organization to key decision-makers or supporters.
You get the chance to see their passion for the organization’s mission, assess their dedication for showing up and following through on the projects they lead, and gauge their willingness to leverage their influence with others to serve the organization. In other words, you can identify potential "big league" prospects by observing those who exhibit leadership qualities and characteristics and you know would make a great board member, when openings occur.
Having this type of robust leadership development system will create an abundance of potential organizational leaders across a broad spectrum, ensuring a rich pool of talent for the current and future needs. Invest in developing future leadership now, by considering all of the various ways to engage volunteer leaders for your organization. Then, when vacancies arise on the board, you will be prepared to score a home run with your choice.
There’s one more vital lesson that MLB offers nonprofits. It’s incredibly important and extremely powerful, especially when it’s combined with robust recruiting and leadership development programs and completes the leadership cycle.
Lesson 3 - Honor your heroes.
Cooperstown, New York is home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. This is where the sport’s best are enshrined for their contributions to the game. However, every team also has their own Hall of Fame as a place to honor local heroes and legends for their contributions to the home team. Often, these Hall of Famers continue their involvement with the organization, but in a different capacity. They may participate in celebrity events to engage with fans, mentor new players, become a coach, or serve as a community liaison -- all of which are valuable ways to stay involved and contribute to the team.
Consider that every nonprofit organization would benefit from creating their own version of a Hall of Fame as a place to recognize and honor people who have provided legacy leadership. Rather than losing touch with past board members or “putting them out to pasture” after they retire from their season of service, induct them into your Hall of Fame and find ways to continue their involvement with your organization. Perhaps your Hall of Famers serve as a resource for the current board officers, connect with your major donors and community leaders, or provide counsel and advice on key decisions. Whatever their exact role, the key is finding ways to keep them connected and meaningfully engaged beyond their season of service and to honor them for their leadership and service.
Your Hall of Fame, when coupled with your leadership farm system and big league board, provide a continuum of leadership spanning a lifetime of involvement with your organization and enables you to more fully engage leaders by preparing for service, engaging them in service, and rewarding them for their service.
Implementing these ideas from MLB will guide your organization to building an All-Star board and help you develop your championship team of leaders. No longer will board member recruitment be a shot in the dark, rather it will be tapping the right person on the bench for their time in the big league.
Photo of red bench provided by © Chrishg | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos