There are common leadership preoccupations in the nonprofit sector, and they emerge despite the disparate structures, business models, and programs delivered by the many different types, sizes, and missions of nonprofit organizations. One such common theme is how to maximize the role and contribution of the board of directors.
The desire for a high-functioning board––whether from the perspective of the volunteer board member or the executive leading a nonprofit––results in a continuous flow of advice books, websites, scholarly articles, and a horde of consulting firms all aimed to help nonprofit leaders and boards work effectively together.
But governance is not a “one size fits all” proposition. Some nonprofits may thrive with a capable leader and a small “kitchen cabinet” board. Others need much larger boards whose personal financial support is a key ingredient in financing the organization’s work. Some boards need neighborhood representation to bring needed viewpoints to governance discussions. There’s no one right way.
But every board of every nonprofit can and should be thinking reflectively about their work. Fortunately, there are excellent resources to help support this process, and to challenge boards to improve their performance. So, as the New Year progresses, it’s timely to pause and think about whether the board you sit on, or the board you work for, is effective. Here are some tools and actions to consider:
With free polling tools like Survey Monkey or Google Forms, it’s easy to ask board members after every meeting whether they found their time together worthwhile. Were the pre-reading materials helpful? Were materials distributed far enough in advance? Were presentations clear and helpful? Was there adequate time for discussion? Was discussion encouraged? Were all voices heard? By asking board members for input after each and every meeting, staff and the board chair can respond to board insights and preferences and shape agendas that are meaningful.
Boards are often preoccupied with the same ongoing operational and fiduciary obligations that can bog down management. It’s important to take time, perhaps yearly, for bigger discussions about the relevance of the nonprofit’s mission and program approaches, the shifting external environment for the organization’s work, a deeper look at results and impact, and consideration of new directions. Board members can be particularly important to these deeper and more open-ended conversations. They bring outside perspectives from their various professions and walks of life to inform the nonprofit’s strategies and future plans. Retreats often benefit from trained facilitation, and Minnesota abounds with qualified consultants for this role.
It is often the board’s governance committee that administers an independent, anonymous self-assessment survey to measure the collective performance of the board of directors. One widely used survey instrument is available from BoardSource, a nonprofit organization that works globally to support, train, and educate nonprofit leaders. Individual board members answer questions, asking for example, whether the board spends its time effectively; how well the organization is responding to changing circumstances; whether the board is appropriately assessing the performance of the executive director and setting performance goals; and whether plans and programs are aligned with agreed-upon strategies. Results are aggregated and reported back to the full board. Much like an employee engagement survey, such assessments help the board understand what’s needed to be better at its shared work.
Most board members get involved because they share a commitment to an organization’s mission and are inspired by the opportunity to do something positive to achieve it. Board chairs and staff leaders will do well to remember that board members’ enthusiasm can be kindled through deeper touch points with the people and programs a nonprofit connects with and delivers. Behind-the-scenes activities, opportunities for hands-on workdays, and hearing directly from clients and from employees in a variety of roles are all ways to connect the board members with the heart of the work.
Nonprofits are one place in our democracy where we gather as volunteers to build shared solutions and empower communities. Nonprofit boards are an ideal setting in which we can all choose to mandate equity, diversity, and inclusivity, and to model the kinds of dialogue and action needed to build a just society. By both recruiting and engaging diverse members, boards will enrich their discussions and increase the likelihood that their future decisions will meet the needs and opportunities of our increasingly diverse society.
Beyond the many tools and resources from BoardSource, Minnesota’s own Propel Nonprofits is an excellent resource for board and prospective board members. Propel’s website lists current board opportunities and the organization provides board development and other strategic consulting services.
Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media, and philanthropic sectors.