Many wonderfully well-intentioned people sit on nonprofit boards of directors. There is a substantial gap in our sector, however, between how boards think they are doing and how effective they really are. It is not the fault of the individual board members–few people have experienced first-hand what a high-performing board looks like, sounds like, or acts like. Often boards fall short of the mark and do not accomplish what they hope for, and frankly never know why.
So what kind of board should nonprofits seek to build and maintain? Boards that are:
- STRATEGIC. The board is “self-aware” on what kind of board it is and what kind of board it needs to be in the future, with its eye on the horizon. Since all organizations are constantly in a state of growth or decline, as a critical element in the organization’s evolution, boards must not be static entities either. A board should be closely aligned with the organization’s mission, which helps prevent the group from being merely tactical.
- EFFECTIVE. The board is right-sized: neither too large or too small. It has regular, planned, productive meetings. Attendance and participation is consistently at a very high level. Documents are prepared, circulated, and reviewed in advance. Meetings start and end on time, following a written agenda.
- ACCOUNTABLE. Roles and responsibilities for both the organization and individual board members are defined and understood–up front, prior to election. Board members understand the three W’s of work, wisdom and wealth, appreciating that each person contributes according to his or her talents and means. Assignments are accepted with the knowledge that accountability and trust are paramount.
- DISCIPLINED. The board members understand the appropriate boundaries and inherent distinctions between board and staff. Chains of command and lines of communication are carefully followed to protect the integrity of the process.
- SELF-GOVERNED. The board is strong, and not only when called upon to act in times of crisis. “The board leads the board” rather than expecting to be completely directed, facilitated or supported by one individual—a very dominant chair, or the executive director and/or senior staff. If there is a disruptive member or some other issue arises, the board chair and executive are prepared to confront the problem and resolve it as a team. There is a natural leadership tension between the executive director and the board, given that the board hires/evaluates/fires and yet the executive is usually the person who has the most information and dedicates the most hours; savvy board members understand this tension and manage to work effectively.The best board chair serves as a sort of “weaver” who keeps the various parties connected and calls people forth to serve.
- TRANSPARENT. Board members understand what each person around the table brings to the organization, and what their motivations are. There isn’t a secret hierarchy of elite insiders, or private alliances. Disclosure is the preferred and default mode in board culture. Decisions are made in the room, not in the hallway afterward.
- ETHICAL. Board members appreciate that work in the nonprofit sector is often more complex and challenging than originally assumed. Concerns can be raised by the group and both real/perceived ethical breaches can be avoided, or addressed and corrected.
- CARING AND CONNECTED TO THE CAUSE. The board is not so far removed (either literally or figuratively) from the work of the nonprofit so as to be in some “ivory tower.” Community-based nonprofit boards have members who are directly involved with, and representative of, the population you serve.
- WELL-DOCUMENTED. Documentation is strong and readily available, from by-laws to a conflict of interest policy and a gift acceptance policy to attendance records, votes on action items, meeting minutes and financial statements.
- SUSTAINABLE. Board members are elected or appointed to defined terms, allowing for a horizon-level look at when terms will end, being prepared for unforeseen changes, and creating ways to continuously recruit new talent.
- ACTIVELY, CONTINUOUSLY EVALUATING. The board regularly evaluates itself through an annual SWOT exercise, candid discussion of its own governance and operations, and/or an electronic survey tool.
- RESPECFUL OF GROUP PROCESS. Conflict is inevitable, so dialogue about different perspectives is encouraged, and differences in opinion are allowed to occur. Everyone has a chance to be heard. No one is “just observing,” and no one is overly dominant.
- INCLUSIVE. The board is open to welcoming those who are new and unfamiliar, ensuring diverse points of view and appreciating that differences in demographics, experience, tradition and perspective make the organization stronger. A relatively “flat” organization chart is more likely to be open and inclusive than one with a firm hierarchy.
- EDUCATED. As a group, learning is ongoing. Every board member has a keen understanding of the mission of the organization and its programs. Each person has the tools to be an “ambassador” and “cheerleader” externally.
- COLLEGIAL. Board members create and take advantage of opportunities through the year to interact on a personal or social level. They form connections, friendships and bonds that can outlast their board term(s).
- ENJOYABLE. Even in work, the work is joyful and the passion and commitment that drew people to the nonprofit’s cause in the first place is always honored. Nonprofit board members respectfully regard each other as volunteers and appreciate that there are choices in the community to donate time and treasure.