Establishing Your Leadership Council

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

This is part four of a five-part series.

To read part one, What Does A Leadership Council Doclick here.

To read part two, Defining and Naming Your Leadership Councilclick here.

To read part three, Four Situations Best Served by Your Leadership Council, click here.

The first step in recruiting Leadership Council (LC) members is to clearly define what it is you are expecting of them, both in terms of time commitment and ultimate goals. Remember that anyone you approach is going to be, in all likelihood, a busy person, and people have their own time obligations. I recommend that you identify clear, tangible goals to convey to each of your council prospects (e.g., “We want passage of this particular piece of new legislation in the next election” or “We need to raise $1 million to build our new facility next year”), along with a set amount of hours and meetings you expect from them each quarter or biannually, depending on the nature of the goal.

As Kim Klein, co-publisher of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal, says, “A good question to ask yourself is whether you would agree to serve on such a council.” Bear in mind, however, that your capabilities and schedule may not be the same as those of the people you approach.

There are many types of individuals who would make good candidates for your council. When recruiting, consider:

  • People who have been on your board of directors, but for whom you no longer have a structure in place to involve them.
  • Those who would like to be associated with your organization, but don’t have sufficient time to carry out the duties of a trustee.
  • Individuals you are fond of who have competing interests with your organization that preclude them from becoming a trustee. They can still lend their endorsement through the vehicle of the leadership council.

Before you reach out to anyone, please create a list of characteristics you want the candidates to have. For instance, if your LC is dedicated to the passage of legislation, you probably want your members to have some legal background, plus they should be comfortable speaking in public. Again, these criteria will vary from council to council and task to task, but proper delineation of the characteristics will significantly expedite and clarify the entire recruitment process.

Recruiting council members

When creating any type of LC, the first recruitment step is to reach out to your prospects by phone and have a friendly chat to see if they are interested. You don’t want to meet with someone who hasn’t the time or inclination to take part. If a prospect is amenable to the idea, then arrange to meet in person. It is advisable to bring at least one other person to that meeting, just as you would for a major gift meeting, to provide additional perspective and to help answer any questions the prospect may have. You should still regard this meeting as an interview for a job position. Do you think this person will work well in this capacity? Is this person enthusiastic about achieving results and comfortable committing time? As a rule, it is far better to be disappointed now, rather than later. There may be other LC’s formed in the future that are better suited to them and you can circle back at that time.

Suppose a prospect doesn’t return your call. Should you wait for a response or move on? I suggest you try calling three times at varied times—with two days in between each call—and afterward send a personal handwritten note saying you’ve been trying to reach them and ask if he or she would please call you. If the prospect still doesn’t call after a week or two, it’s time to move on.

Fundraising council members can be recruited from any group, if the members are connected to financial resources. But just because a person is wealthy, or knows other wealthy people, does not mean they will make good fundraisers. While all fundraisers brought onto your fundraising council needn’t be wealthy, they will all need to be comfortable asking others for money or making introductions for that specific purpose. What you are looking for on a fundraising council are individuals who can effectively approach and persuade potential funders (individuals, corporations, or foundations) and who possess the connections to readily reach out to them. This sort of councils is often used during campaigns and are often called campaign cabinets.

The ability to host a fundraising event (a Party with A Purpose) at their home or business is another excellent qualification. If the prospective council members are wealthy and want to lead by example, all the better; in fact, it’s almost mandatory that they be willing to give generously if they have the means—otherwise their solicitations to others are likely to ring hollow.

Working with council members

If your initial interviews go well and you elect to appoint the prospects to the council, they can begin representing you almost immediately. You can also decide to appoint one or more people as co-chairs and begin once you have them on board. To reiterate, you do not have any sort of quorum requirements as you might with a board, and each subsequent council member you appoint can augment the work already begun. You may decide to wait until you have several council members on board; depending on the task and time frame, this may be a more prudent course. But your options are far greater than they are when choosing your board. Practically speaking, when you’ve received verbal consent from prospective council members, you will need to send them a letter of confirmation to memorialize their consent to participate. Remember, you ask them in person, and you formalize that invitation after they’ve accepted, by mail. At some point, usually by the time of your first meeting, you’ll want to present them with a list of whatever council membership requirements you’ve created as well as any and all benefits of being part of the council, such as having their name appear on your letterhead and website.

A good next step is to host an initial gathering of the LC members, possibly give them a tour of your agency if appropriate, where you will also announce the date for the annual council meeting. Once your council is up and running, you should check in with the council members regularly, keep them up to speed on all organizational developments, and take an active oversight role regarding upcoming deadlines, results benchmarks, or any problems that may be brewing among the members. The main purpose of any council is to allow an organization to delegate a task or tasks that it doesn’t have the capacity or means to address. In an ideal world, your council members will be able to coalesce and act as a leading edge of your organizational vessel. However, at least one person, even a volunteer, should be charged with liaising between the council(s) and the CEO to be sure the former is sufficiently engaged and up to speed. A lack of engagement or a feeling of irrelevancy can doom a council to, dare I say, disengaged irrelevancy.

One excellent way to boost council participation and cohesiveness is to occasionally invite a guest speaker to address them. As your councils develop, so too will your ideas for honing and strengthening them. Board members can be invited to the annual meetings of leadership councils, and you can also occasionally ask a council member or two to attend board meetings. How exactly your board and council interact is up to you and your board. You should also establish how your nominating process for your council will take place now and in the future.

Be they honorary councils, “friends of” committees, or president’s councils, here are the bare minimum requirements to consider when forming your next leadership council:

  • A few people will put time in to nurture, care and feed the group
  • An annual meeting date is set a year ahead
  • There’s a commitment on the part of the coordinators to meet once a year with each member personally or by phone to update council members and define their roles
  • Recruitment of new members is an ongoing routine task
  • There’s a clear, substantial, and concrete purpose

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