Key to the needed restructuring of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors is significant change to nonprofit boards of directors. Indeed, change at the board level can provide some significant improvement to the effectiveness of the sector.
Too often board members are one of two things. They are disengaged (bored, not invested, only in it to benefit themselves or their career, or simply missing in action) or overly engaged (micromanaging the nonprofit staff, clamoring to move the organization towards their own personal gain). I have seen boards of directors that buck this trend and are engaged, invested, committed to making the organization better, stronger, more successful. They give significant financial gifts, devote many hours to the work of the organization, and leave the Executive Director and her staff to handle the day-to-day operations unobstructed. But this is the exception, not the rule.
I wonder if many of the struggles the nonprofit sector faces stem from the fact that the staff reports to a group of volunteers who have other, higher priorities in their lives. I’m not sure if there is an answer to that reality. But if a board of directors can become more engaged, more energized, invested and committed to the organization, the nonprofit can expand its network, increase its revenue, strengthen and expand its programs, and ultimately provide more social return. There are some things that a nonprofit Executive Director can do to make their board more effective:
- Determine what kind of board you want. Don’t leave board recruitment up to the board. Create a board matrix that analyzes what skills, experience, networks the current board has and where the holes are. Then actively work with the nominating committee of the board (another must) to research and network with good potential board candidates who fill these holes. Provide a thorough vetting process (interviews, reference checks, etc.) before putting them in front of the full board. And be honest and up front with the candidates about the time and resource requirements of a board position.
- Create and enforce roles and responsibilities. Create a roles/responsibilities document for each individual board member that they agree to and sign. This document should make it crystal clear what the staff and board expect each member to contribute, from meeting attendance, to fundraising, to serving and contributing to committee work, and so on. If a board member is not delivering on their roles and responsibilities, the board chair should give them a warning and then ask them to resign.
- Create and enforce a stretch give/get requirement. If a nonprofit’s board is not giving or fundraising in a significant way (let alone at all) then how can an organization expect any other donor to make an investment? The board of directors should be a nonprofit’s closest friend and staunchest supporter. They must demonstrate this support through financial means in order for the organization to have any hope for financial sustainability. Some nonprofit organizations argue that they want some board members from their client community and sometimes those board members can’t afford to make an investment. First, anyone can afford to contribute $1, which simply says I believe in this organization and am putting whatever I can into it. Second, a client board member would be an excellent fundraiser. Take them on major donor fundraising visits and have them passionately explain the impact the organization is having.
- Engage the board in strategic, not tactical, activities. Not every board is at a stage where they have the luxury of being strategic. A startup board is by necessity tactical, they are just trying to make the organization viable. But as soon as possible a board should leave the day-to-day operations to the staff and take on the big picture, strategic, visionary questions of the organization: should we expand our operations, should we start a new program, should we launch a new business venture, where do we want to be in 5 years? These are the questions for the board. A nonprofit ED can move the board in a more strategic direction by working with the board chair to set an agenda that focuses on strategic issues. And a good board will become energized and engaged by the bigger picture questions.
- Constantly remind them of the impact of the organization. Just as you want to focus your messaging to donors on impact, you want to focus your board members, at every meeting, on the impact the organization is having. This reinforces why they got involved and how they are helping to make change in their community.
- Use them wisely in fundraising. Don’t have your board pick decorations for your next fundraising event. Rather, use them to open doors to major donor asks. One of the key things a board of directors provides is access to a desirable network of people in the community that have resources. Use them to connect you to those people. Don’t squander that resource on things your staff could be doing.
- Effectively train them. Many boards of directors focus on the tactical because they are afraid or don’t know how to tap into their network. So train them. Find a good fundraising trainer to educate the board on the importance of their role and make it easy and exciting for them to open doors to the organization. You also need to provide a board orientation when they first join the board to give them an in-depth understanding of the organization’s programs, finances, operations, activities, history, mission, vision, etc. Then, pair them with a seasoned member of the board to meet with on a regular basis that can bring them up to speed. Finally, provide the entire board at least annual trainings in fundraising and their role in the organization.
The board is one of the most important, and typically ineffectively used, resources a nonprofit organization has. An effective board provides a nonprofit a broad network, financial strength, long-term vision, and all important strategy for on-going success.