Boards Are the Top Ingredient in a Nonprofit’s Success

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by Jeff Jowdy

Every time we finish a client engagement, we review the experience to see what we can learn from it. In every case, one major theme is clear: The quality and engagement of the board is a critical factor in the nonprofit’s success.

Here are eight key tips for building and engaging your most successful board.

1. Terms are vital

Terms — and, yes, term limits — are important for optimal board functioning. This goes for members as well as officers. While institutional knowledge and history are important, a board with a stagnant membership and leadership too often becomes set in its ways. Members may collectively become blind to situations that they should be alert to in regard to their fiduciary responsibility to safeguard the organization’s assets (including its ethics and culture) and to ensure that its mission is implemented and strategic goals achieved.

2. Leadership succession plans are critical

It is critical to have succession plans for the board — to know who the next chair will be, for example. When we conduct strategic planning, we ask that the immediate past chair, current chair and incoming chair be a part of the planning committee. When we encounter a nonprofit that does not have its next chair designated, we know that there typically is a problem.

3. Board engagement in fundraising is essential

This includes board members making a leadership gift — whatever that level is for the organization. And it means that board members are actively engaged in the identification and cultivation of prospective major donors and, ideally, with some of the solicitation. However, if a board member does their job with cultivation, the solicitation becomes the easiest part as the prospective donor begins to think, “How can I help?”

4. The relationship with the CEO is key

Your board should be operating at a strategic level; they — and only they as a collective group — have one employee, and that is the CEO. The board is responsible for hiring the CEO and, if/when needed, firing the CEO.

So there is a need for clear role definition, a true partnership and what I call dynamic tension. Ultimately, the CEO is an employee, and the board must be able to correctly assess the CEO’s performance, the need to coach, the need to reward — and, yes, the need to make a change.

5. An effective committee system maximizes the board’s synergy and impact

Board members should be engaged on a committee where they have interest and the skills to make a difference. Committee roles and goals should be clearly articulated and, where possible, a committee should be staffed so that board members’ roles can remain strategic.

6. Education is a must

We are wrapping up a book on nonprofit board chairs. Our research shows that fewer than half of board chairs feel they were given the resources they needed to understand their role. You can imagine that if the chair feels that way, the education for board members is even less. It is essential that a nonprofit have a formal board-development cycle, including ongoing education and a full orientation for new board members.

7. It’s a blunder to let your best friends move on

With terms, you will have great board members who will need to step off your board. This may be for a short period of time or a longer horizon. Nevertheless, your board members should be among your most insightful and passionate friends and most loyal donors, whom you should keep engaged even after they move on.

I rotated off of a board — including serving on the executive committee — of an organization and have not heard from the executive director since. While I was on the board (and especially when the executive director was in an interim role), I heard from her weekly. As I speak with other former board members, I’m realizing this “ghosting” is typical of the organization. Our thank-you gift for serving on the board was mailed to us with a very impersonal form letter. The lukewarm acknowledgment didn’t go unnoticed.

I recently resigned from another board that I chaired because the CEO who had inherited the board really did not want engagement or advice. More than half of the board has left — and guess where their gifts went, including mine?

Have a way to keep your former board members involved, whether it is a corporate board or an advisory board. It shows your respect for their service and will yield great results for your organization. This can be as simple as an annual in-person or virtual briefing or inviting them to a social event with your current board.

8. Size doesn’t matter

We once had a CEO retain us for a strategic-planning process, and he had one goal for the plan: reduce the size of his board so that it took less of his time and he could manage it more easily.

The size of a board depends on the organization, its life cycle, its mission and its purpose. We are big fans of large boards whose primary role is fundraising. A board of any size, however, takes a big investment if it is going to be effective. And an effective board means that board members also have a connection with the CEO, the chair and each other, as well as a connection to the organization’s mission. This takes time. We have seen large boards that are very effective and small boards that are very ineffective, and vice versa.

A wise mentor once told me, “You get the board that you deserve.” It takes a major investment of time and other resources to create, engage — and deserve — a good one. But trust me, it’s worth it.

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