Creating A Board That Works

Nonprofits’ success depends on their ability to assemble a board that is committed to the mission and a strong partner to the executive director.

Creating A Board That Works
9 mins read

You need a strong, engaged board to support your nonprofit’s mission.

First, too many nonprofit leaders expect board members to be human ATMs. “Go raise lots of money or write big fat checks and leave me to do my important work!” Fess up if you’ve said these words aloud to a colleague, your spouse, or your imaginary friend, or if they’ve appeared as an invisible thought balloon above your head during a board meeting.

Secondly, EDs are endlessly frustrated by board members who are not engaged. Typically, this means your board member is MIA for meetings and unresponsive to phone or email outreach — the code phrase from nonprofit staff is “all I hear are crickets.”

Many board members would concur that, based on their interactions with the ED they understand that their job is to give, get, and show up.

Now, of course you need your board to give, get, and show up; but if this is all you focus on, you mask the mission-critical responsibilities of a nonprofit board.

Every day, I deal with dysfunctional nonprofits (the functional ones don’t call me), and I have developed a clear diagnosis. Lack of fundraising, giving, and engagement — these are symptoms, not the illness. But the good news, is, there’s a proven method for increasing both fundraising and engagement, and it’s something that you as an ED can control.

Ultimately, it comes down to the old saying, “If you want money, ask for advice; if you want advice, ask for money.” By meaningfully engaging your board in strategic decisions, they’re much more likely to give, contribute in other ways, and engage, all because they feel more connected to the work.

It comes down to what I call the illness: “the ignorance factor.”

All too often, board members do not understand the full breadth of responsibilities that come with board service, so something as simple as crafting a short Board Member Agreement can easily, effectively address this.

After all, board responsibilities, when ignored or handled poorly, can weaken an organization (that’s a best-case scenario) or totally jeopardize the sustainability of it.

It’s incumbent upon you as the ED to ensure that all board members are crystal clear on what’s expected of the board as a whole, as well as of them individually.

And let’s be really clear. Your board must be strong. You must engage board members. Board members must understand their roles and take them seriously. Very seriously. There are stories galore of organizations who stumble or crumble as a result of a weak board.

This feels so very important that, when I hit the Powerball jackpot and win millions of dollars, I will start a foundation dedicated to truly building nonprofit capacity and the board’s strength will be front and center in my analysis.

I would only offer general operating support (that alone would be refreshing) but I would introduce some unique hoops.

In order to receive the grant, we’d first require the following information:

Relationship between ED and Board Chair

In a meeting with the executive director and the board chair, we’d want to hear about this partnership, which is critical to a thriving nonprofit. How do they lead together? How often do they meet?

I’d have a look at standing agendas and action items. I’d want to know what the last challenge was that the organization faced and how they worked together to solve it.

Board Meetings

What are board gatherings like? Are they designed with intention?

Reviewing several past board meeting agendas and minutes would help us get a sense of how effective board meetings are, or if they’re wasted by focusing 90% on updates and reports, instead of productive conversations designed to actually solve problems and move the work of the organization forward. I might actually sit in on a meeting and see how the board chair leads (or if the ED is really behind the wheel).

Board Orientation

We will need to know about the orientation process in detail. How clear are board member positions and responsibilities? How much training are new board members given?

As part of this step we’ll be looking for a contract that every board member signs — see link above for more on the helpful Board Member Agreement tool.

Board Member Reviews

Is there an annual review process for board members, and if so, what does that look like? Does it ensure accountability for the commitments conveyed in a Board Member Agreement, and ideally also personal development plans created by each member articulating their goals for the year?

If there isn’t, is there a willingness to put one in place?

Board Composition and Growth

In a meeting with the board chair, the ED, and the head of nominations, I’d ask to see the Board Matrix for the ideal board and how the current board fits into that strategy. Seeing the nominations pipeline and priority gaps the nonprofit is working to fill will give me an idea of future board direction and growth.

Assuming a nonprofit jumps these hoops successfully and receives a grant, the grantee would in turn be offered the following professional development opportunities:

  • A full-day workshop for board chairs and the ED when one or both are new
  • A three-hour session about what it REALLY means to be a board member (complete with examples of dysfunctional boards)
  • A full board meeting dedicated to ensuring that all board members are equally financially literate
  • A session for all committee chairs to set goals for the year
  • One session on how to evaluate board members
  • One session on how to evaluate your staff leader

The bottom line is this: The board is one of two engines on a nonprofit twin-engine jet, with the ED being the other. Both engines must be high performing.

That means you have to invest in your board engine. If you want to really build the leadership of the nonprofit sector, ask a lot of questions about that engine and about life in the cockpit.

Oh, and can we please put some board professional development in the annual budget?

It’s time to change our mindset. An organization hires board members. It’s time to buckle down, my friends. Invest in and build a strong board. A very strong board. Because the organization you save could be your own.

Complete this short Blue Avocado quiz to gauge where your nonprofit could improve your board engine: (You can also download it here: Blue Avocado Board Engine Quiz)

1. Our ED and Board Chair work effectively together.

Yes / No

2. Board meetings have a clear agenda.

Yes / No

3. The board chair leads effective board meetings.

Yes / No

4. Board members undergo an effective orientation process.

Yes / No

5. Board member responsibilities are clearly outlined.

Yes / No

6. All board members sign a contract or “Board Member Agreement” upon joining.

Yes / No

7. We have a clear board member review process that occurs annually.

Yes / No

8. We review our ideal board composition matrix regularly to assess priority gaps.

Yes / No

9. We have a clear nomination process for new board members that aligns with gaps we need to fill.

Yes / No

10. All board members are financially literate.

Yes / No

11. All board members set personal goals for the year and clarify how the organization can support them in achieving those, all of which is documented in a Personal Development Plan that’s updated and reviewed annually.

Yes / No

12. All board committees set and document goals for the year and review those goals annually.

Yes / No

13. The board has a clear process for evaluating the ED.

Yes / No

Key (Total number of “Yes” responses):
10-13: Superior!
7-9: Good
5-6: Average
2-4: Fair
0-2: Poor

About the Author

Joan Garry left a successful career as an entertainment executive in 1997 to serve as the executive director of GLAAD, one of the largest nonprofit organizations working for LGBT equality. Joan now works as a consultant for hundreds of nonprofits, teaching them with wisdom, joy, and humor, the keys to effective nonprofit leadership. Joan is also a champion for the thousands of folks who lead small nonprofits. She is the co-founder of The Nonprofit Leadership Lab, a monthly membership site for board and staff leaders on small to mid-sized nonprofits. Joan offers many free resources—her weekly blog, her podcast on iTunes, Nonprofits Are Messy, and September 19-26 she is offering a free miniseries called “High Impact, No Burnout: A Nonprofit Leader’s Guide to Loving Your Work and Living Your Life. Lastly, Joan contributed the chapter on “Thriving as an E.D.” in the newly released 2nd edition of Nonprofit Management 101.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

7 thoughts on “Creating A Board That Works

    1. Thanks for your request Mairlyn – to be added to our list, simply scroll up slightly to the large box a few paragraphs up that says “Join our mailing list today” and fill in your information, or scroll to the top of any page and click where it says “subscribe” and do the same!

  1. Please add me to your list. I am doing research on starting a non profits and looking for guidance. Cost to get set up – any pro bono attorneys I can get help with?

  2. Please add me to your list. I am doing research on starting a non profits and looking for guidance. Cost to get set up – any pro bono attorneys I can get help with?

  3. Our 501(c)(3) choir has an all-volunteer board of directors. We recently established a ‘Guild” or Friends group for the purpose of managing an annual fund raising gala and volunteer support organization. The Guild is not a separate 501. I am looking for guidelines for the structure of a successful friends group; how to handle a separate bank account, defining roles and responsibilities. Can you please direct me to guidelines for building a successful friends organization? Thank you for your assistance

  4. The other day, my sister told me she wants to be a part of her community’s board member. It’s interesting to know how people look for engaged board members and assist their meetings, so I think my sister could benefit from reading this before her interview. Thanks for the insight on how to find board members that are reliable.

  5. My wife and I have a 501(c)(3) nonprofit established three years ago. She is the CEO and I am the CFO, and our daughter is the secretary. That’s the full complement of our board (and, yes, I am still happily married to my wife). In three years we have only managed to gather $500 in donations to further our cause and mission, and the rest of our operating funds come from our personal income. Everyone says we have a great cause but no money. We have no board members and don’t know how to ask, or how to ask for revenue. We would like to see our nonprofit grow as large as NOAA, someday, but without members and money it just seems to be a pipedream. How do we grow and prosper?

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