I have had the privilege of serving on and helping lead dozens of nonprofit boards. Some were far too small, some have been far too large, and there are those that have been the ideal size for the organization for which they had the leadership responsibilities.
Regardless of the size of the board, however, most of the nonprofit boards with which I have been associated, as executive director, CEO or board member, have suffered from the same general malaise. Most boards are underperforming and filled with board members who are inadequately trained, under-informed, and lacking sufficient motivation and engagement to provide the needed leadership and guidance for the organizations they serve.
What makes this sad is that underperforming boards are a major culprit in underperforming nonprofit organizations. My position is simple and borne out by over four decades of personal experience. A truly successful nonprofit organization, regardless of its mission, focus, size or scope of work, must be led by a highly motivated, deeply engaged and, above all, impact-driven board of directors.
Although such boards are the exception rather than the rule, they do exist. Impact-driven boards, of deeply engaged and motivated members, create a powerful vortex of possibility and potential that provides both the critical vision and the ongoing energy necessary to grow and expand a nonprofit.
Planning and Growing a Board
But where do you find such a board? The quick answer is that you don’t. Impact-driven boards do not just happen. Such high-powered boards come into being through the intentional commitment of a nonprofit organization’s leadership. Impact-driven boards filled with informed, energetic, and engaged members must be intentionally planned and grown. All boards are comprised of individuals who need cultivation, nurturing, and constant attention. Impact-driven boards are no exception.
Yes, achieving such a board is an immense amount of work that requires significant time and effort. But providing the necessary maintenance repays all the effort ten-fold with improved outreach, a larger footprint, and measurable growth in organizational impact.
Whose responsibility is it to grow an impact-driven board? Although it starts with the executive director and board chair, the growth and care of an impact-driven board is the responsibility of every member of the board. A board fully committed to the vision, mission, and work of the nonprofit it leads will make the cultivation and nurturing of its members a high priority.
This cultivation begins with the search for, and nomination of, the best qualified potential new members. This is an ongoing process, with special attention paid to both board needs and diversity. Board diversity is not just racial, but includes gender, religious, and geographic diversity. The use of a board recruitment matrix is a tremendous tool to help with this. For an excellent recruitment matrix source, see https://boardsource.org/.
Once a new board member is recruited and added to the board, providing a detailed orientation to the board and board member responsibilities is the next essential step. This orientation should include a notebook or packet of basic information (see below), as well as having the opportunity to meet and spend time with both the executive director and board chair. Having an experienced board member act as a mentor for every new member also pays big benefits in helping ensure that new members become quickly engaged and active.
Another often overlooked aspect of growing an impact-driven board is that time should be allocated for socializing. Board members need to know one another well enough to be comfortable enough to disagree. This is often difficult to achieve when members only see one another in official meetings. Make time at least once a year (preferably more) for board members to get to know one another in an informal setting.
Holding occasional dedicated events just for board members is another excellent way to increase interaction and deepen board engagement. An example of this is from one of my own organizations, Rise Against Hunger. When we have international staff or partners visiting our headquarters, we arrange an informal dinner where board members can meet and interact with our guests. This dinner is normally hosted by the board chair or the CEO and is hugely popular with the board. Such dinners allow the board members time to get a more personal connection with the work of the organization, and also provide excellent opportunities for board members to socialize in an informal setting.
Another foundational principle in growing an impact-driven board is integrated into term limits. The term-limit power spiral, as I call it, is a key component to increasing the impact of nonprofit boards.
A lack of term limits is always a red flag for helping spot an underperforming nonprofit board. Term limits are essential for acquiring new leadership and energy for boards. Term limits should also be used to intentionally remove the dead weight of inactive or non-engaged board members.
Those same term limits are what allow the term-limit power spiral. Every occasion that a board member must step off the board at the end of their term is an opportunity for that vacant position to be filled with a candidate who is even more qualified.
Such a practice creates an upward power spiral that ensures the nonprofit board should be constantly growing in both quality and impact. That, in turn, creates an ever-larger community footprint and the potential to attract even more qualified candidates to serve on the board.
The qualitative growth of the board encourages the growth of the nonprofit’s impact, which in turn attracts more influential board members, which again increases the organization’s impact. This is the term-limit power spiral.
New Board Member Orientation Packet
Every board member should have a board packet or notebook which includes the organization’s basic documents. New board members need to receive their packet as part of their board orientation and have the executive director, board chair, or their board mentor go through the contents with them.
Every nonprofit board’s packet will be different, but there are numerous types of information that should be included. They include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Charter documents
- Board organization and membership
- By-laws and policies
- Strategic plan
- Financial management, policies and procedures
- Financial records
- Fundraising plans and reports
- Community and public relations efforts
- Program descriptions
- Staff organization and data
- Personnel policies
There are any number of documents which may be included under each of these general headings. The point is that every new board member should be provided all the basic necessary documents to become as knowledgeable as possible from day one of joining the board. An informed board member is far more likely to be an engaged board member.
No nonprofit should be satisfied with an underperforming board. The answer to such a board is to transform it into an impact-driven board of engaged leaders, all working together to further the vision and mission of the organization. Growing an impact-driven board takes intentionality, and both time and effort, but the rewards will pay huge dividends far into the future of the organization.
Ray Buchanan, United Methodist minister, author, and former Marine, founded Rise Against Hunger (formerly Stop Hunger Now), an international hunger relief organization that distributes food and life-changing aid to the world’s most vulnerable, mobilizing the necessary resources to end hunger by 2030 through the collaboration of volunteers and organizations. Ray teaches in the Nonprofit Leadership Program at University of Lynchburg in Lynchburg, Virginia, and is active with several local and international nonprofit boards. www.riseagainsthunger.org/
This article is reprinted from Issue #10 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!
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