Planning and the Role of the Nonprofit Board: To What Extent Should a Nonprofit Board Be Involved in Planning?
A nonprofit board’s fiduciary duty of care—aka risk prevention, management and compliance specific to program, finance and governance—can be effectively achieved by a nonprofit board through three activities:
I am aware that nonprofit boards often prefer to pass these tasks, particularly planning, onto their staff, the executive director and CEO. However, I believe that as the surrogate “owner” for the public and central to its duty of care, a nonprofit board has the responsibility to fully engage in the discovery, dialogue and development of a nonprofit’s strategic directional commitments and strategies—aka planning.
Getting the Board Involved
So, what might planning that involves the board look like? I think that a nonprofit board of directors should periodically (every three to five years) produce a strategic plan (multi-year, fully informed and results-oriented decisions) that includes the three activities:
1. Review and at least affirm their Theory of Change, mission, vision and values. The Theory of Change describes what the board members believe is the organization’s self or community-appointed problem to solve, approach to solve this problem and result, if successful.
2. Collect and review data to inform discussions and decisions. “Data” should be generated from as wide and diverse a range of sources that will provide meaningful and substantive insight to decision-making. Sources can include internal records; board members and staff; live testimonies often in the form of interviews, surveys and focus groups that include those and those who might be the organization’s “customers” and other stakeholders; experts in the field who have conducted relevant research and/or are repositories of data like the government; and academia.
3. Reach agreement about results desired to achieve mission, including the services that should be offered to achieve these results; management and operations; resources (how will services be financed); and governance (the board). These commitments, along with the plan, lay out the groundwork for the board’s accountability to itself and the public and provide guidance and expectations to the staff.
Put Aside Extra Time
How should a board that is generally expected to provide some 20 to 30 hours a year of time wearing their governance hat complete these three activities within a reasonable period of time (three to six months)? I do not expect members to add significant amounts of time to their lives, but I do expect a bit of extra time. If a strategic planning committee is engaged, members can meet once a month to help prepare board members for their strategic discussions, which include the mission review, data analysis and directional commitments. I also expect the full board to set aside extended meeting time at least three times during the planning process to understand and discern over what is brought to them by the committee.
But certainly, a monthly meeting by a committee and two or three meetings by the full board does not ensure that that planning task will be completed, ever. There is clearly more work to be done, and I expect a significant portion of this gap will fall to staff to support. I believe that one staff responsibility sometimes referred to as the “care and feeding” of a board is to ensure board members are fully informed to make strategic directional commitments and strategies. This means that a large burden of supporting the planning committee and board throughout the process necessarily falls to staff and oftentimes consultants to, at minimum, facilitate meetings, if not to also collect information (providing an objective framing and preparing iterative notes and documents). But the work of staff, while significant, should not offset the responsibility of board members. A strategic plan that will be fully informed and fully implemented is one that has had full board involvement throughout the planning process.
Bottom line: I believe that a strategic plan is one essential component of a nonprofit board’s fiduciary duty of care. Engagement throughout the mission-setting, discovery and directional commitment stages of the process ensures high levels of ownership and commitment to implementing the resulting plan. Failure to engage in a strategic plan ensures that a board will fall short in ensuring its focus and understanding if it is on-path.