The Role of the Board in Nonprofit Success
"Please tell me what to do with my board!" a beleaguered executive director once said to me. She was about to pull her hair out in frustration.
And then a well-meaning board member asked me, "What am I really supposed to do?"
There's so much confusion about the appropriate job of a nonprofit board member. Many executive directors struggle with managing and motivating their board members in one way or another.
You'd probably agree with me that nonprofit boards can be a huge pain point for many people. This can include the board members themselves, who are immersed in a sea of confusion about what to do and how to do it.
Many board members themselves would like a better experience. They want their time to be better used because they want to make a bigger contribution to their favorite causes.
But is everyone clear on the jobs nonprofit boards are supposed to do?
There are very few formal, legal jobs required of nonprofit boards: "Duty of care, duty of loyalty and duty of obedience." All the other tasks that boards take on will vary widely based on the organization's age and staff skills.
So let's clarify the real jobs of nonprofit boards—and board members themselves. Whether the nonprofit is large or small, it can often share many of the same challenges with its board governance.
23 Habits of High-Performing Nonprofit Boards
This refresher course outlines how high-performing boards really operate. What are the jobs they take on? What are their attitudes and habits?
1. Clear expectations. The best boards are completely clear about expectations for board members. Without clear expectations, boards are setting themselves up for problems either now or later.
- Board expectations include general issues such as "support the mission."
- They also list specific actions required such as "purchase a table at the annual gala" or "attend ¾ of all board meetings."
2. Enforced expectations. Many boards have expectations but don't enforce them. You have to keep the expectations alive so they become recognized and accepted. Otherwise, they will be ignored!
- Discuss expectations often in board meetings. Read each expectation, and explain it by saying "this means that …"
- See if you can generate substantive discussion around each expectation to make it real.
3. Interesting meetings. High-performing boards make sure their board meetings are interesting. They don't waste time on trivial issues.
- Try to create a meeting experience that leaves everyone feeling energetic and excited about the organization.
- Don't focus solely on business issues—you simply must reconnect your board members with your cause and the urgent work at hand at each meeting.
4. Consent agendas. Great boards package non-controversial, routine agenda items into a block (the consent agenda) that are voted on all at one time. This saves time and moves the meeting into more urgent issues quickly.
- Then you can spend time on the important issues rather than minutiae.
- You have board meetings that are generally more interesting, compelling and therefore more enjoyable.
5. Recruiting new members. Great boards are thoughtful about their new members—and select them carefully. They don't add people just because slots are open.
- Determine the various skill sets and qualities you want in new board members, which actually may vary over time.
- Then take your time with a careful recruitment process—which should take several months.
6. Orientation. They orient their new members carefully—to help them get up to speed on strategic issues and also to help them feel like valued members of the group. Orientation should include social time with current board members.
- Orientation might take place on a Saturday morning in a current board member's home to create a relaxed environment.
- It might include many current board members so they can answer new members' questions and start getting to know them.
7. Term limits. Great boards enforce term limits, with no discussions and no questions. Rotating new board members keeps the board fresh and open to new ideas. Everybody knows and accepts this.
- Without term limits, your board may evolve into more of a social club—which is clearly not in the organization's best interest!
- Having term limits helps bring in new members with fresh ideas and energy—something we all want!
8. Giving. All board members make a "proud, personal" gift individually each year, putting their money where their mouth is. They encourage all other board members to give.
- The total amount of board gifts to date is proudly announced at board meetings, reminding everyone how important it is.
- Board members who have not yet given are gently reminded with pledge envelopes under their meeting agendas.
9. Annual planning retreat. Great boards have annual retreats to discuss strategic issues and forge closer working relationships among board members. The planning retreat helps them establish and know what their goals are.
- The annual retreat can have a theme, such as getting everyone organized for fundraising.
- Or the retreat looks at where the organization is and where it wants to go, emerging with specific plans for next year.
10. Social time. High-performing boards make social time a priority because they know it helps create closer personal relationships among board members, which in turn engenders trust and a sense of team.
- Board meetings always include optional social time such as dinner, lunch or snacks.
- Board meetings are designed to help members get to know each other better, via discussion groups, task forces or teamwork.
11. Fun. Great boards have fun together, which establishes camaraderie. They want their board members to enjoy their time on the board. They know that having fun together builds disparate individual board members into shared mission and better teamwork.
- The board can enjoy outings and site tours together.
- They can get together for a holiday social at someone's home.
12. CEO. All boards hire and manage their CEOs as one of their principal duties. In addition, the best boards have strong CEOs whom the board members like and trust.
- The board as a whole stands by its CEO.
- The board feels that it is in a partnership with the CEO, not an employee/boss relationship.
13. Group process. The best boards pay attention to the intangible issue of "group process"—how the board members work together as a group. They understand that some people are heard more than others and the informal communications that usually happen outside board meetings.
- They make sure that one group (usually the long-time board members) does not dominate, so nobody ever says, "That's the way we've always done it."
- They deliberately try to bring out the more silent members of the board.
14. Focus. High-performing boards are willing to stay focused on what's best for the organization—not their personal agendas or preferences.
- This means that fundraising strategies are chosen based on hard data and not on various people's likes or dislikes.
- Great boards have members who may have their personal agendas but who are willing to put them aside for the benefit of the organization.
15. Conflict. Great boards are not afraid of strong discussion at board meetings, but they keep it cordial. Because trust and a team spirit are already developed, healthy conflict can occur and no one is bothered by it.
- Board members are willing to challenge each other, with respect.
- Board members don't shy away from asking the tough questions—of each other too.
16. Adhere to structure. Great boards never go around the CEO to individual staff unless they are working on a specific project directly with staff.
- Individual board members are not interfering with the daily work of staff.
- Staff members feel protected from potentially meddling board members by their CEO and this process.
17. Messaging. High-performing board members are clear on what the message is. They know why their organizations need and deserve financial support.
- Board members practice their own personal elevator speeches: "why I care."
- Board members are able to comfortably articulate why their organization is important.
18. Self-evaluation process. Great boards have a board self-evaluation each year, and they discuss it frankly.
- The group has a feedback mechanism in place to get feedback from board members about their experience and how to make it better.
- The board takes seriously issues that come up in the annual self-evaluation process.
19. Monitoring progress. High-performing boards have a way to measure how well they are doing. They measure themselves against goals, both as individuals and as a group.
- A board selects certain data points as a dashboard that reflects organization performance.
- A board that sets performance goals for itself as well as for the organization is more effective.
20. Bias toward action. Great boards are action-oriented. They like to get things done.
- Board members understand that their job is not just to come to meetings and pontificate.
- Each board member knows what his or her to-do list is.
21. Clear decision making. Great boards are clear on where decision-making authority lies.
- They establish who is supposed to make what decision, and they are clear about it.
- They have clear ground rules on how decisions are made.
22. Clear communications channels. Great boards are clear on how communications are supposed to flow. The issue of who knows what, when is one of the great sources of friction in any group working together.
- News is shared by the appropriate people, not by the grapevine.
- The right people are informed at the right time.
23. Committees. Great boards don't have committees that linger forever. They know that committees that meet endlessly start to become tired, with lagging attendance.
- Standing committees with long-term assignments are kept to an absolute minimum.
- Each committee that comes into being has a specific reason for being, with specific deliverables and action items.
This list shares many ideas for making your board more effective. Let's make your board a huge contributor to your organization!