C. Forbes Sargent III, Esq.

  C. Forbes Sargent III, Esq.


Establishing a strong board of directors is critical to the success of every nonprofit organization. The board plays an essential legal and practical role in advancing the mission of the nonprofit, from governance to fundraising to operations. The best directors combine a passion for the mission with an ability to think strategically and provide proper oversight. Board composition will influence and direct the dynamics of the organization, so a team that brings a diversity of skills, perspectives and experiences is highly beneficial. With the right board members, a nonprofit can be successful in both good times and bad.

First, it is important to know that nonprofit organizations are formed in response to community needs and, therefore, serve a public purpose. A nonprofit is closely aligned with the community it serves and, in turn, its board of directors must represent the community’s interests. Among the first questions to ask is, “Is there an unmet need in the community and can we make a difference in addressing that need?” The answers to these questions should come from a needs assessment that includes both quantitative and qualitative information. The organization should understand the demographics of the individuals in that community. It is important to survey potential users of your service to understand their perceptions, help frame the nonprofit board’s mission, and define the attributes needed for an effective board of directors. A nonprofit board that reflects the community it serves will be much more effective in serving the community and undertaking its fiduciary duties.

For example, if the goal is to end gang violence in urban Latino neighborhoods, the nonprofit should consider having influencers from that community, such as Latino teachers and reformed gang members, as board members or program participants. By identifying the diversity that exists in the communities served, the nonprofit can better align community needs with board composition.

Once the nonprofit is properly aligned with the community, a board can be developed. Here are five strategies for building an effective nonprofit board.


Having at least one or two board members who have served on a nonprofit board is key to having an effective board. They help provide guidance as to how meetings should be run, how other boards deal with issues, and often provide a good balance to a board. Although it is not necessary for board members to have prior experience as business leaders, they should have good business sense and be able to translate the organization’s long-range vision into a practical plan. If the board is comprised of thoughtful, well-meaning supporters who lack the ability to lead and think strategically, the nonprofit will likely not achieve its goals.


A board member has to be enthusiastic about his/her role as a board member and passionate about the nonprofit’s mission. These board members help to energize the board, and serve as ambassadors for the nonprofit. When all board members actively participate in meetings, charitable events and fundraisers, others are encouraged to do the same, and this can have a significant impact on how the organization is viewed by the public and donors. In short, passion and enthusiasm can help drive successful fundraising and engage the community.


A nonprofit board is most effective when it draws from a diverse group in selecting board members. As stated above, the diversity should include making sure the board reflects a broad base of the constituents it serves. Having diverse racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds present helps give the board different perspectives on issues. Additionally, board members should have diverse professional backgrounds, including members of the legal and business community, as well as members with financial, accounting, and marketing backgrounds. Board members should also include supporters and constituents of a cause, so that their views get heard as well. If the board does not have leadership that is as diverse and inclusive as those being served, then the nonprofit runs the risk that key constituents – volunteers, donors, partners, and communities – may feel disconnected from the cause.


Most boards do not have any training and often end up muddling through meetings. It is important to either have experienced leaders or get training for board members. All board members should also have copies of the nonprofit’s governing documents, mission statement, strategic plan and the Attorney General’s Guide for Board Members of Charitable Organizations. Board members need to know what their expectations are, as well as what they can do as board members. Retreats can be beneficial for reflecting on what the nonprofit’s goals are and adopting a strategic plan. Today, many nonprofits have limited economic resources, and taking the time to focus on mission priorities during a retreat can be time well spent. A clear agenda is needed and an outside facilitator may be worth considering. Among the retreat agenda items could be staff and volunteer roles, financial management, policy-making, fundraising, strategic planning, and board self-assessment. Ultimately, a well-planned retreat can help build comradery and consensus among board members and help them prioritize short-term initiatives and effectively plan for the future.


Many nonprofits forget that to keep volunteers engaged and retain them, they need to recognize them. A study conducted by the American Cancer Society’s New England Division revealed that recognition and the occasional small token of appreciation go a long way to assist in retaining board members. The recognition can be formal or informal. For example, the New England Division holds annual Volunteer Values Awards that formally recognize and honor those area volunteers whose service in the fight against cancer most exemplifies the organization’s values. On the informal side, one board provided a hanging basket of flowers to its officers at each annual meeting in June as a thank you. That gesture meant a lot to the board members for minimal expense.

Equally important to the above five strategies is having effective staff leadership. An executive director’s role is to oversee the nonprofit’s functions, including fundraising, program development, HR management, and finances, and provide strategic guidance to board members on setting annual fundraising goals and standards for community outreach, grant-making, and more. However, a truly impactful executive director is dynamic, engaging and creative. He or she must embody the enthusiasm, passion, diversity and experience that is the model for all board members to follow. Particularly in a small nonprofit, it will be up to the executive director to serve as the face and voice of the organization, and motivate board members to work as a team to advance the nonprofit’s mission. Part manager, part cheerleader, and part visionary, the executive director must be a strong leader who doesn’t mind getting his/her hands dirty in the day-to-day work.

Boards that follow these strategies and have active leadership often find that they are more effective and are better able to attract and retain qualified board members.


Forbes Sargent III is a partner at Sherin and Lodgen LLP in Boston, and advises nonprofits on legal issues. Forbes is the former director of several nonprofit boards, as well as an attorney advising nonprofits, and led a volunteer retention study as fundraising chair of the American Cancer Society Massachusetts Division. Forbes can be reached at 617-646-2000 or cfsargent@sherin.com.


This article is reprinted from Issue #5 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!

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