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Rescuing Your Board From Complacency

By Alan Gothelf

When serving on a board, council or commission, one of the toughest parts of the job is to stay at the strategic level. Most of us aren’t formally trained to think and act strategically. It’s outside our comfort zone. But clear planning is critical for the success of the organization you’ve been tasked to lead or advise.

Successful organizations, whether they’re for profit or nonprofit, are successful because they create business plans, work the plan, and consistently measure how well they are meeting their goals.

The board of Eastside Fire and Rescue, which serves rural communities east of Seattle, grappled with some heavy challenges last year that revealed serious underlying problems. The mission of Eastside Fire and Rescue is to save lives and protect property. Our crews work with focus, urgency and a plan. The board by contrast, had become just the opposite – complacent.

Recently, the fire and rescue board was faced with the job of replacing the Fire Chief – at the same time that a majority of the fire department’s senior staff was retiring. Keep in mind, the board’s most important job is to hire and manage the leader of the organization.

It was a real wake up call.

Board members were forced to dig deep into the weeds of the organization, discovering along the way that a lack documentation and strategic planning was at the root of many issues. Also missing was a process for on-boarding new members.

As a first step, the board developed a list of goals to achieve for the year. This simple step focused everyone on key strategic initiatives. It also allowed each board member to take responsibility for areas and issues where they had experience and knowledge.

Board members set clear deadlines for each goal and gave regular updates on where each goal was in the process. This allows the board to focus on key tasks that have to get done to move the organization forward.

Today, the Eastside Fire and Rescue Board of Directors operate with an understanding of their roles and responsibilities. They’re creating a true strategic plan for the agency that will guide it forward with clear, distinct and measurable goals.

The final key is developing an all-encompassing 10-year plan for the agency – a road map guiding it into the future. It’s the same type of business plan you would expect to find at any for profit corporation, but is often shortchanged or neglected by nonprofits.

With clear goals, the board can now focus on strategic needs – generating revenue, regional expansion, and a focused lobbying effort to achieve long term objectives.

The work of Eastside Fire and Rescue is a matter of life and death – and now they have a board that is driven to support them.

Alan Gothelf is a partner with Altruist Partners. He specializes in helping councils, commissions and boards develop revenue and impact. He can be reached at

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