I’m in a tug of war right now with a start up I’m working with. The organization has a, well, we’ll call him a “fellow traveler” who runs a big law firm and is therefore convinced that he knows way better than me about small not-for-profit start ups. He’s digging his heels in over the board of directors for this organization. Unfortunately, this guy is likely to be a major initial bankroller for the organization, so I can’t really piss him off.

Also unfortunately, he’s wrong.

I told the founder of this organization to keep the board “statutory” for the first year at least—just himself and two close friends who are in the industry. (“Statutory” meaning that the statute requires only 3 people on the initial board.) Our bankroller is up in arms over “conflict of interest” and “heavy hitters” and “industry stakeholders.” He wants to put together a power board that will bring in lots of money, and thinks that the founder should not have a vote on the board, since, well I’m not really clear on the “since” inasmuch as the founder is not drawing a salary at this point.

This is a common misconception about boards, especially start-up boards: that you have to have a fundraising board right off the bat, full of major players who will put you on the map.

But there are several things wrong with this.

First, unless you are the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, there’s no such thing as a fundraising board in small and mid-sized non-profits. Some organizations of this type have major givers ON their boards, but a vanishingly small number of them actually have boards that do any more fundraising than buying a table at the Gala and turning over their Christmas card list once a year.

Second, I’m not convinced that you want to be on the map. Another organization I work with attracted serious dollars from a major government agency and a national retailer before they even got their 501-c-3 approved. Now they’re scrambling to pull together materials, presentations, staffing, financial systems, legal issues and everything else that it would have been nice to have a few quiet months to work out.

Third, I’m sorry, but the power players aren’t interested in you, unless they have a very personal connection (like my lawyer, um, friend here). If you know power players, try to get donations out of them but for god’s sake don’t put them on your new board, because they’ll want all the power. Make an “advisory council” for them.

Which brings us to the last (and salient) point. For a start up organization, as the founder, YOU need to have the power. You don’t want to waste energy that you need to build your vision fighting with your board. Keep it small and personal while your organization finds its legs. If you know heavy hitters and power players find them a role that allows you to be in charge.

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