5 Pro Tips to Building the Nonprofit Board of the Future
In the past, the makeup of a nonprofit board of directors primarily consisted of people with a vested interest in your organization—early investors, lead donors or people the organization’s leader knows well and trusts. Board chairs would look to match certain kinds of experience and expertise, such as legal or financial. And everyone needed a healthy database of friends and peers with influence to tap for monetary and other donations, visibility and entree to new spheres of opportunity.
But we live in rapidly changing times, so nonprofit boards have to evolve to truly support today’s modern enterprise and ventures that haven’t even been invented yet.
“We’re seeing an ever-changing nature of board selections, not only taking into consideration diversity and inclusion, but also seeking potential board members with in-depth knowledge in fintech and health tech disciplines. And many of these experts are coming from a younger base of individuals looking to disrupt more conservative thinking,” says Richard Funess, senior managing partner, Finn Partners, a global communications firm and veteran of an eclectic set of boards including in the health, education and arts areas. “In short, boards must look at embracing different generations, diversity in makeup and establishing their brands with corporate social involvement programs to be recognized as leaders in their respective fields.”
Broadly speaking, this can be interpreted into some modern board “must-haves:” racial, age and gender diversity; wide swaths of superior business and industry experience; and, now more than ever, cutting-edge tech acumen. Here are the steps to take to best assess board needs and fill the slots with a hard-working board who will keep your organization’s needs and goals top-of-mind.
1. The Best Board Chair (It May Not Be Who You Think)
Unless you’d like to provide a free education to your board chair, do yourself a favor and do not select a chair based solely on non-board work experience. As attractive as the candidate may seem based on work acumen, board experience is a far different animal and requires deft diplomacy to manage the diverse personalities, and wants and needs of a range of stakeholders—board members, employees, analysts, lobbyists, investors, regulators, bankers, and policy makers, for example. And, though none of us has a crystal ball, the director who helped you when your start-up was first forming may not be the right fit when you’re attracting serious attention, contributions and investment; so keep in mind that this is not a lifetime appointment.
2. Beyond Looking Good on Letterhead—Board With Relevant Skills
Kathy Shea, a business consultant who has advised numerous CEOs and other leaders on assembling a successful board, recommends starting with a wide net: “Look for a variety of skills to supplement your own staff, particularly if it’s a small start-up for instance or a not-for-profit with lean staffing.”
She continues, “Today’s boards must provide real guidance to staff, beyond looking good on letterhead, so think a lawyer, a marketing professional, a compliance person, etc. never losing sight of your quota of people with deep pockets or access to friends and colleagues who are potential donors.”
At the same time, board members with deep expertise in a given field or industry will always have to understand and respect the boundary between their role relative to direction, oversight and resources versus the daily management and operations of the organization.
3. Who Will Be Your Board’s Go-To Tech Guru
"As technology becomes more critical to all aspects of nonprofit management and fundraising, seek board members who are savvy about automation. At least one person should be a 'guru' of digital marketing, so they can lead, inspire and educate the board members and internal team,” says Nancy A. Shenker of theONswitch, a marketing consultant who has served on and led several nonprofit boards.
Shenker also advises looking to “nontraditional” companies for potential board adds. Technology companies that are scaling and have just received funding may be looking for social causes to get involved with. Then, think about HOW you're building awareness of and scaling your nonprofit. Micro-donations and social media can play a huge role in attracting new sources of funding. Above all, welcome digitally-savvy professionals to your board. Simple things, like using one's own online network to build awareness, market events and raise money, are now commonplace. Every nonprofit needs to get the digital memo.
4. What Are Some Pitfalls in Modern Board-Building?
Probably the biggest pitfall is skirting proper vetting based on a great recommendation from colleagues or other outside directors. We employ a suite of vetting tools, everything from several personal interviews inside and outside our company to the completion of a skills matrix. The matrix plots a range of skills including financial, investment and policy expertise to digital, marketing and education. The exercise is aimed at finding candidates that fill any “gaps” and those who over-qualify in key needed areas.
Just like ideas in Congress, which thrive when there is bi-partisan support, your board will work best with a combination of mindsets, instead of a cookie-cutter lineup. You want an open-minded board that is not too set in their ways, a combination of “gray hair” and experience with fresh thinking folks who aren’t afraid to shake things up.
Carla Howard, strategic change consultant, offers, "I've seen well-established conservative boards reject ideas that don't fit with their thinking and traditions. As in any venture these days, a certain amount of disruption paves the road to transformation and grown."
5. How Can You Keep a Board Engaged and Forward-Thinking?
First, decide at the outset if your board is an actual working board with discrete duties and responsibilities, such as the board of The NHP Foundation, a provider of affordable housing, which weighs in on property development and acquisition decisions or more honorary, requiring a meeting or two per year and some outreach to key contacts. This ensures that the candidates understand what will be expected of them in terms of time, expertise and resources. The level of demand should never be underplayed or overplayed.
We strive to never let our board meetings be “boring.” In addition to the tasks at hand for every board—reviewing minutes, the financials, business-at-hand and other key decisions—we provide our board with up-to-the-minute presentations on everything from social media to the latest in fintech. We encourage our board members to contribute to our ongoing thought leadership efforts by proposing speakers for events and topics for surveys and other owned content we produce.
Every member of our board contributes in ways beyond their job description, and we firmly believe most board members want to do that if given the opportunity. And the board of the future will be given opportunities we can’t even imagine yet, which is why it pays to invest well in your board today.