Meet Your New Personal Board Coach
By J. Patrick Traynor
Impact Foundation boards expert Dan Jacobson
A respected commercial banker and leader in Fargo for more than four decades, Dan Jacobson has been involved with boards for nearly as long. Dan recently retired and joined the Impact faculty as its resident boards expert, bringing with him a wealth of experience serving on and leading nonprofit boards.
We recently sat down with Dan and asked him how he initially got involved in board service, why he’s so bought in to the Impact Boards approach, and what people can expect working with him.
You’ve served on and chaired a number of boards throughout your career — the American Heart Association, Dakota Business Lending, and American Red Cross to name a few. To what do you attribute your interest in boards?
A desire to give back. There’s also a little bit of a learning by example from my dad, who was the CEO of the hospital and a community leader in Grand Forks. He was involved in all kinds of stuff — the United Way, the Chamber, Rotary. So i think there was a little bit of it in my blood.
A lot of what I got involved with was because I was asked. And then it seemed like the more things I got involved with, I always ended up in a leadership role. So I figured there was probably something to that and began to see that maybe this was a space for me.
What are some of the most common issues you see with nonprofit boards?
I think most board members need help understanding exactly what their role is. I include myself in that in some of my own past board experiences. That’s why Impact Boards was an eye-opener for me — this idea of aiming higher, that the possibilities are truly unlimited. I think the typical board probably underestimates what they can do as a board and as an organization.
Not knowing how to run an effective meeting is another common issue. I think it’s pretty common for a board member to go to a meeting and — without a proper agenda — get distracted by tangents and rabbit trails. It highlights the importance of the board chair and their ability to run a good meeting. You have to be able to be respectful and let people’s voices be heard but also keep the meeting on track. There’s an art to that, and it’s something we teach in Impact Boards.
You have a unique perspective on Impact Boards because you’ve implemented the framework within actual boards that you’ve served on. Did that give you some proof of concept?
Absolutely, I think I can add that extra little bit of cred because I’ve been in the shoes of people who are participating in a retreat. I can say, “Yes, this works, and I know it does because I’ve been through it twice.”
In 2021, I was the incoming chair of the American Red Cross board and — having sat through the very first Impact Boards pilot in 2019 — I was familiar with a number of the concepts. Due to COVID and some reorganization, our board had a couple years of not doing much so I asked you (Pat Traynor) to come in and help us carve out a path forward.
At the time, we had a new executive director who was about 30, had never been an executive director before, and wasn’t always sure what he should be focusing on. So we did the training and implementation and both our director and board really embraced it. We accomplished a lot throughout that next year and made so much progress by focusing on the six IMPACT pillars.
More specifically, you’ve seen firsthand the transformational potential of a board dashboard. Can you talk more about that?
When that (Red Cross) executive director started, our board dashboard was probably three pages long, had way too much detail, and was just generally hard to understand. We all knew it had to be simplified.
And as we implemented some of the Impact Boards principles and got (the dashboard) down to about one page and 11 items, it was really interesting to watch it actually become a development tool for him.
It transformed how he approached the work, and that rippled into our board because as a clearer path was formed, it clarified for us where the organization was at, where it was headed, and how we could help. It was a true momentum-builder.
So what will you be doing with organizations after they complete an Impact Boards retreat?
Implementation. Once a group has gone through a training and has a solid understanding of the IMPACT framework, that’s where I come in to help them actually put these principles into place. Whether it’s a dashboard like I mentioned or improving the relationship between the CEO and board chair, I’ll be there to challenge, encourage, and problem-solve alongside them.
If you’re an organization that’s ready to take the next step with your board and are interested in either an Impact Boards retreat or one-on-one coaching, you can reach out to Dan directly at [email protected].