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Can You Really Create a Powerhouse Nonprofit Board?

By Nell Edgington

steamtrainIt happened again last week. An executive director approached me after my keynote address in Washington DC and mentioned how ineffective his board of directors is. He said it as an aside, as if it were simply a given for any nonprofit. And for so many nonprofits it is — the board of directors is a loose grouping of people who don’t do a lot for the organization. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If managed strategically, your board can be an unstoppable army moving your nonprofit forward.

In working with ACE, an early literacy nonprofit, I helped them revamp their board from the ground up. We did a series of things that helped the board understand its role and get excited and engaged in the work of expanding ACE’s reach, increasing its accountability, and driving a growth strategy.

Here’s how a board of directors, like ACE’s, can be transformed:

Get Clear About Their Role. You must develop board by-laws, a committee structure, individual goals and individual roles and responsibilities. The board as a group must come up with all of these elements (with help) and together decide how they want to work and create accountability for themselves.

Find the Right People. Contrary to popular belief, a nonprofit does NOT want to recruit any warm body for their board. Instead you want to take a hard look at your organizational strategy and determine the skills, experience and networks required at the board level to make that strategy a reality. Compare those needs with the current board and determine where the holes lie. Then recruit people with those missing skills, experience and networks.

Give Everyone Specific Goals. If you are not very clear and consistent with each board member about what their specific roles and requirements are, it is little wonder that they are not performing. You need to set a give/get requirement for each board member and then meet with each member individually at least once per year to talk about how exactly they plan to meet that requirement. And use that opportunity to be creative and strategic about tapping into each individual member’s strengths. Don’t try to make each board member do the exact same thing.

Let Them Be Strategic. If your board meetings are merely a boring recitation of everything that’s happened at the organization over the past month, it is little wonder that there is no passion, energy or initiative on the board. Instead, make sure that each board meeting poses a key strategic issue for them to grapple with. Let your board use their brains and drive the strategic direction of the organization. Begin engaging the board on a much deeper level and start reaping the benefits.

Make Them Lead. At the end of the day the board should be leading the organization. Don’t get frustrated with their lack of leadership and simply take over for them. Encourage the board chair to drive the agenda, to lead the meetings, to ask more of her board members, to raise the bar.

I have seen it happen. A board of directors can be a nonprofit’s most valuable asset, bringing the organization better exposure to key decision makers, access to increased community support, and more effective, sustainable leadership. If you want to learn more about how I help nonprofits transform their board, take a look at my Board Development Consulting Service, or if you’d like to schedule a time to talk further about how I can help your board, send me an email.

Photo Credit: Ashley Dace

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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