By Craig Klose
Board development may be something your small nonprofit organization often overlooks or takes for granted. We get it. You’re strapped for time and resources. Your board of directors operates fine as it is, right?
But your board must be built. It must be nurtured. It must grow. It must continually develop to plan, monitor, accomplish, improve and promote your nonprofit mission. While your board acts as a singular entity, it comprises a number of individuals selected for their professional expertise in one or several areas. These individuals themselves must grow and develop, individually and collectively, to best serve your organization and those dependent on its services or resources.
Perhaps you’re working on developing a board to launch a new nonprofit. Or perhaps you want to get the best out of current and future directors.
A Primer on Board Development for Small Nonprofits
For those with little or no experience with a nonprofit board, we’ll begin with a basic definition. Established nonprofits absolutely, 100% have to have a board of directors. Your nonprofit couldn’t legally exist without it.
What is a Nonprofit Board of Directors?
The Board of Directors is the governing body of a nonprofit. Individuals who serve on the board work with the organization’s president, chief executive, executive director, etc. to:
- Oversee the organization’s programs and services
- Ensure programs and initiatives adhere to and promote your mission and vision
- Follow federal, state, local and tax-related laws and regulations pertaining to the administration of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit
Board members meet periodically (perhaps monthly or quarterly) to discuss and vote on the affairs of the organization. At a minimum, an annual meeting must occur with all board members present.
Here, a note is in order about how boards work with executives and the difference between governing and managing. Governing – the board’s role – involves high-level functioning: mission, vision, values, goals, strategy and oversight. Management is the day-to-day operation of the organization including the allocation and execution of resources – ideally this is the purview of the executive director.
However, some board members, particularly at small nonprofits like yours, may serve very valuable roles in guiding the day-to-day. Some may have friends in high places, providing connections to build relationships with potential grant funders (foundation directors, grant managers, government officials, etc.). For small nonprofits with little or no staff, board members may even serve direct or supporting roles on a pro bono basis with things that might be considered day-to-day (writing grant proposals, fundraising, community outreach, hosting events, etc.). (More on this below.)
What are Some Great Board-Development Activities?
Board-development activities should honor its guiding principles (like the 12 listed below or whichever your board chooses). You may prioritize building the number of members, establishing policy, strategic planning, professional training, or anything of the like.
The board may even decide further study is needed to determine organizational needs in greater detail. It’s not uncommon for boards — even those with decades of experience — to need more study. Due diligence and self-evaluation are not bad things.
The board can prioritize collective and personal development. Board retreats allow members to get away from the grind, reconnect and refocus on the mission. You may bring in a motivational speaker or participate in team-building exercises and games that allow board members to:
- Know one another better
- Acknowledge individual and collective strengths and weaknesses
- Improve interpersonal skills
- Build upon and learn new professional skills
Board development may orient new members or reorient existing members toward organizational missions, priorities and initiatives. It may foster excellent communication. It may prepare for crises that could hinder the mission or derail it entirely.
Board development should stress accountability. Each member is accountable for certain elements of organizational governance. In turn, each member is accountable for the organization’s success. (Helpful hint: use a board retreat to establish board-contribution protocols requiring participation or assigning responsibilities to each respective board member. Many boards without guidance and structure can become handcuffed either by an overly assertive chief executive or laziness from one or multiple members.) An effective board of directors is the sum of its parts.
What Does an Effective Board Do?
A well-developed board of directors should comprise members that wield specific areas of expertise, professional experiences and perspectives. Some may have executive experience, while others may boast financial, communications, legal or other proficiencies, for a well-rounded collection of skills.
The board uses its collective skills to govern based on a set of agreed-upon principles. Here’s a great example. BoardSource (formerly the National Center for Nonprofit Boards) outlines the “12 Principles of Governance That Power Exceptional Boards” as:
- CONSTRUCTIVE PARTNERSHIP: Exceptional boards govern in constructive partnership with the chief executive, recognizing that the effectiveness of the board and chief executive are interdependent.
- MISSION DRIVEN: Exceptional boards shape and uphold the mission, articulate a compelling vision, and ensure congruence between decisions and core values.
- STRATEGIC THINKING: Exceptional boards allocate time to what matters most and continuously engage in strategic thinking to hone the organization’s direction.
- CULTURE OF INQUIRY: Exceptional boards institutionalize a culture of inquiry, mutual respect and constructive debate that leads to sound and shared decision making.
- INDEPENDENT-MINDEDNESS: Exceptional boards are independent-minded. When making decisions, board members put the interests of the organization above all else.
- ETHOS OF TRANSPARENCY: Exceptional boards promote an ethos of transparency by ensuring that donors, stakeholders, and interested members of the public have access to appropriate and accurate information regarding finances, operations and results.
- COMPLIANCE WITH INTEGRITY: Exceptional boards promote strong ethical values and disciplined compliance by establishing appropriate mechanisms for active oversight.
- SUSTAINING RESOURCES: Exceptional boards link bold visions and ambitious plans to financial support, expertise and networks of influence.
- RESULTS-ORIENTED: Exceptional boards are results-oriented. They measure the organization’s advancement towards mission and evaluate the performance of major programs and services.
- INTENTIONAL BOARD PRACTICES: Exceptional boards intentionally structure themselves to fulfill essential governance duties and to support organizational priorities.
- CONTINUOUS LEARNING: Exceptional boards embrace the qualities of a continuous learning organization, evaluating their own performance and assessing the value they add to the organization.
- REVITALIZATION: Exceptional boards energize themselves through planned turnover, thoughtful recruitment and inclusiveness.
What Kind of Board Should Yours Be?
There are also different kinds of boards, depending on each organization’s individual needs, local setting and its reach. You may have heard of a board of directors being referred to as a “working board.” But what does that mean? And surely, the opposite of a working board couldn’t be a … non-working board, could it? Yes, there are non-working boards, but that doesn’t mean they don’t do important work.
What is a working board? When individual board members roll up their sleeves and pitch in when there is work to be done: they plan, organize and physically work fundraising and other events. Members of a working board may do everything from strategizing and implementing marketing materials to writing grants for the organization. While this is not unusual for smaller nonprofits and those in the start-up phase, the ideal is to keep governance (board members) and management (director and paid staff) as separate as possible.
The opposite of a working board is a governing board. You may also have heard of a “prestige board.” These are basically the same thing and just imply a very firm line between governance and management duties. A prestige board is a board whose members are chosen explicitly for expertise and name recognition or high-profile in the community and with important decision-makers.While every board may have its share of “prestige” members, it’s important to remember that your board’s only job is to advance your mission as effectively as possible.