Boards of Directors

How to Get the BEST Out of Your Nonprofit Board

I was speaking with a close associate of mine the other day about boards of directors.  He is considered by many to be an expert in the area of philanthropy and he mentioned to me that “The main problem with a lot of boards is that they act haphazardly to market change.  They need to intelligently opt for a strategy and STICK to it.”

In my research of over 250 nonprofits in the United States, 50% of all those surveyed said their board members do not set strategy for their organizations.  Many of those that said their boards do not set strategy explained their answers.  Here are a few answers below:

Well, there is a strategic plan built by our team, staff and board members.  The board reviews the budget and the plan and ok’s it.  We send them quarterly reports, but no, they do not set the strategies. 

They have not done very much in terms of strategy decisions in the past and are currently not doing it.  It depends on your definition of strategy.  I tend to think of strategy as our values as an organization. 

I present strategies to them and they approve them, but I would not say they set them.  So far they haven’t argued with anything that my senior management team and I have brought forward.  It obviously is their purview to veto anything that they don’t think is reasonable, but I would say definitely they do not set them. 

Before making comments about these responses, I’d also like to share two of the responses from CEOs and Executive Directors who said that their board DID set strategies for their organizations:

It’s a team.  For strategic planning, our staff does their component, the board meets and does their component, and then we come together with both of our concepts and then we’ll merge them.  Obviously there are times that the board may see a priority and then as the board, they are going to…you know we are probably going to recognize their priority in an area. 

Essentially most boards, and certainly my board are all about what’s the best thing to do for the values of the organization and so that’s the Holy Grail.  That’s what we are all trying to do and yes, of course we take heed of financial people that say we may need to look at revenue sources for that, but essentially the driving force is to move and continue to raise the bar in the community. 

After reading these responses, picture yourself as a board member.  Which would you rather work with?  An organization that sees you as a passive voice or one that values your input and experience?

One of the primary challenges that we see while working with organizations is their management of their board of directors.  Personally, I have worked with wonderful boards who have been engaged both financially and emotionally.  Working with a well-organized and well-run board are truly one of the best parts of working in the nonprofit sector.

Unfortunately, my research has shown that interactions with board members are about 50% positive and 50% negative from the Executive Director’s point of view.  What baffles me is that in the 50% of negative cases, the Executive Director blames the board for their negative experience.

In my experience, if a nonprofit has a poorly functioning Board, it is the fault of the either the Board of Director Chair or the Executive Director.  A great way to check to see if your board is being managed effectively is using this checklist. When I asked some of the Executive Directors about their board procedures, they half-heartedly commented on the board either being not passionate, not having enough time, or not being fully engaged.

The bottom line with managing a Board of Directors is not about managing the people, it is about managing EXPECTATIONS.  Some key questions to ask are:

  • What is expected of every board member?
  • How much time is expected of each board member per week?
  • Is the board contributing financially to organization?
  • If the board is not contributing financially to the organization, why aren’t they?
  • What expertise does the board bring to the table that we can utilize for the organization?
  • What personal connections does each board member have and how can the organization take advantage of them?

A long-time colleague of mine says that a board member needs to fill one of three functions:

  • Capacity to financially contribute to the organization
  • Knowledge and ability to leverage networks of individuals with the capacity to contribute to the organization
  • In-kind services to the organization (i.e. lawyers, accountants)

I cannot express the importance of the above three roles.  If a board member does not fulfill one of the three roles described above, it is worth the time to explore what that board member does contribute.  Board members should be the organization’s most avid fans and supporters of the organization they chose to serve.  It is up to the nonprofit staff and leadership to raise their expectations of their boards.

I also cannot express the importance of the organization’s responsibility to make each and every board member feel special, engaged, and essential to the organization’s success AND the organization’s strategy.

If your organization’s board is not performing to expectations, it is 100% up to the organization to make each board member want to give 150%. I am going to repeat that:

It is 100% up to the organization to make each board member want to give 150%.

Once your board of directors begins to work intimately with the staff to set strategies for your organization, STICK to those strategies for a specific period of time so that you can report results on that SPECIFIC strategy.

Engage your board using strategic initiatives (built collaboratively) and report back to them on results in the original strategic language. It will help your board members know that the organization cares about what the board members think and also connect with what the board members consider success.  Once you have your board members knowing you care about them and care about what they consider success, you will all be working on the same page.


Leave a Reply