Utilizing the nonprofit board of directors properly is an uphill climb for most leaders, whether leading a religious institution, local charity, national nonprofit, or educational organization. We’ve been taught leadership wrong and we have inherited systems that aren’t working for maximum effectiveness. In fact, in my 30+ years of work with charities, I’ve yet to find a board that functions up to the level of its capabilities.

In working with these organizations, I have identified some of the common factors that set up low-performing boards, committees, staff, and other stakeholders, which can be a key factor to idea generation. Often, I find that leaders don’t know how to seek team synergy, considering it a weakness to ask for input from those they lead. But it’s the effective leader who knows how to ask effective questions and knows that good leadership is asking good questions and not having to come up with all the answers.

United Methodist Bishop Dick Wills, in Nashville, Tennessee, gave me good advice on creating a vision. We were exploring my upcoming engagement with the Cabinet and I asked about creating a vision for the future of the Conference. He responded that he didn’t remember anywhere in the Bible where God gave a vision to a committee. He was spot on! It’s the leader’s duty and delight to hold the vision. But the leader doesn’t implement the vision alone or create actions for achieving that vision.

Leaders set up basic traps for low-functioning nonprofit boards. The first is over-functioning. If the leader wants the board to champion new ideas, then the leader shouldn’t determine all the ideas and actions. First, define the future, and then lead the process by getting out of the way.

There are many factors for team empowerment. I subscribe to the paradigm of a musical ensemble as a model for a high-performing team. The leader is the influencer and the model for the culture. The ensemble is a reflection of the leader. It’s no different in a non-musical culture.

We must create a process for achieving success from the most relevant and impactful ideas generated. There’s no shortage of ideas a board can generate for the leader and staff to do. It’s engaging the board for implementation that matters.

The strategies for empowering team idea generation and empowering participation are not complex. In fact, leaders generally make things too complicated. Here are four factors for getting maximum impact from a board of directors for idea generation and implementation.


Size: Size matters. The more people, the more difficult it is making decisions. Having a large board (over 20 members) allows for lots of assignments and activity; however, the potential for getting locked in discussion and not coming to an effective decision is also large.

Remedy: Brainstorm, sort, and prioritize ideas by relevance, time, cost, or another factor, and then appoint a three-person project team to move forward with creating a plan and defining specific outcomes.


Culture: Different teams have different norms. Shaping the culture is the pleasure of the leader. Shaping a culture of collaboration is an intentional process that takes time. Moving from a board where there are territories, silos, independent thinking and divisions to a cooperative culture utilizing consensus takes time. It’s well worth the time investment for long-term gains. Competitive teams block progress.

Remedy: Understand and utilize consensus as a way to create a collaborative culture.


Process: We don’t know how to conduct meetings and most board members dread the board meeting because it’s boring, restrictive, and mostly unproductive.

Remedy: Get and use my Conducting Power-Packed Meetings free download on


Communication: Most groups don’t understand how to communicate. We think communication means sharing data. Communication is based on effective relationships.

Remedy: When the team creates the idea and the plan, they support the plan. No exceptions.


Hugh Ballou is a Transformational Leadership Strategist and President and Founder of SynerVision Leadership Foundation. A musical conductor for forty years, Hugh has written eight books on Transformational Leadership, and works with leaders in religious organizations and business and nonprofit communities as executive coach, process facilitator, trainer, and motivational speaker, teaching leaders the fine-tuned skills employed every day by orchestral conductors.


This article is reprinted from Vol. 3, No. 1, of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!
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