Build a Nonprofit Board to Last
One of the dangers nonprofits face is the cult of personality.
That is the idea that one person is the organization. Beyond the initial founding years, an organization’s leadership—staff and board—must work diligently to build an organization to last. Not an organization that is about or dependent on one person.
Building a nonprofit board to last is essential. It is the board that is the steward of the organization, transcending CEOs and other staff leaders.
An organization needs to place its board in the limelight. This showcases strong leadership and helps attract other outstanding leaders to the board. It also provides a small benefit to the board members who give of their resources, talents and time.
You must have policies, procedures and systems in place to ensure good governance. These all should supersede the influence of a single board leader.
Term limits, for example, are essential. This is important for nonprofit board officers too. You can allow board members to return a year or two after they step off the board when fulfilling a term limit. These transitions allow for new ideas, energy, fresh leadership and change when needed. Over time, board members can be blinded by a close relationships with the CEO, especially when it comes to their fiduciary responsibilities. Their judgement can be clouded and they don’t ask (or are afraid to ask) the right questions. I have many times seen a chair or board member leave, rather than address tough issues.
Building systems means scheduling board meetings—at least one year—in advance. You should not move a board meeting because the chair can’t attend the meeting. This, of course, is why you have a vice chair or chair-elect. They are in training and should perform the role of the chair when he or she is not available.
We stopped working with a client after realizing it had a dysfunctional, unethical culture and some very cozy dealings with a consultant who was performing CEO coaching. Several key leaders alerted board leadership to this and other circumstances that should have been red flags, but the board was too close to see what was happening.
A few years later, the CEO was fired when the organization went into a cultural spiral and financial downturn. The board was not fulfilling its fiduciary duties. Then, the board chair pushed an extension of his term for a year beyond the term limit. This was not appropriate, and fresh eyes would have been better to deal with the situation.
Board succession should continue regardless of circumstances, and on this occasion it led to even more questions by savvy observers. This board clearly did not understand its fiduciary role relating to finances, supervising the CEO and safeguarding the organization’s culture. And while this organization’s national office provided CEO search services as a part of its dues, guess who the board chair hired for the search? The former CEO’s coach. And another of that firm’s clients was brought in as CEO.
To have a strong nonprofit board, you need change. But you also need the systems in place that provide for continuity and ensure that each board member—and especially leadership—clearly understands his or her role. This includes an annual board orientation, clear job descriptions, clear procedures for roles like supervision and evaluation of the CEO, and each board member signing a conflict of interest statement.
Build a dynamic board to last. One that is focused on fulfilling your mission—not one that fluctuates at the whims of its leadership.
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.