Nonprofits could not achieve their goals without the collective manpower and connections of their board members. Yet, with the average board consisting of 16 individuals – each having other obligations and priorities in their lives – managing them effectively can be a challenge. Rather than struggling to reign in a troublesome board, here are four ways nonprofit leadership can set their board and organization up for success.
1. Define and Communicate Clear Expectations from Day One
When an organization comes to us with a perception that their board isn’t functioning well, we can usually trace it back to a miscommunication when they initially asked a board member to volunteer. The expectations of the staff are often vastly different than what the volunteer assumes their role to be. It’s imperative that nonprofits clearly define and communicate realistic expectations when asking someone to volunteer on their board.
2. Value Board Members as Individuals, Not a Group
Nonprofits need to look at the skill sets of individual board members, their availability and time constraints, and make sure they are using each person where they can be most effective. For example, there may be one very busy board member who has the right connections but a limited amount of time to give. Instead of inviting that person to 20 meetings, free them up to make five high-value phone calls to potential donors. Likewise, if a board member excels at process and structure, and has available time, they should be invited to contribute in various meetings and not expected to bring in high-value donors. Acknowledging your board members’ unique strengths will help build trust and maximize the value each one brings to the table.
3. Cultivate Potential Board Members Year-Round
Organizations typically get fixated on filling a board spot, rather than determining strategically what the board needs. Think about putting together your board as a year-round, very thoughtful process. We like to see people put together a nominating committee for their board to really consider, vet, and cultivate relationships with individuals to put together a quality board – a board that can solve problems, not just identify them. This approach eliminates a situation in which a nonprofit just quickly fills spots without regard to strategy just because they are going to be empty next month. This vetting process also reduces the risk that a nonprofit will have to ask a board member to step down because it’s not a good fit.
4. Don’t Let Your Board Pass a Deficit Budget
This has more to do with an organization’s success than establishing a healthy board but is worth mentioning. One of the biggest mistakes we see board members make is passing a deficit budget. The likelihood that the intelligent business people sitting on a nonprofit board would pass a deficit budget in their for-profit business is extremely low. Yet, when these same people sit on a nonprofit board they tend to treat it very differently than they would a for-profit company. The reality is a 501(c)(3) is a corporation, it’s just structured differently than an S-Corp or a C-Corp. Being a 501(c)(3) doesn’t mean the organization shouldn’t have greater income than expenses, it means the extra income is being distributed back to the common good instead of to stockholders. With this in mind, a nonprofit should make it clear to its board members that they should apply the same level of fiduciary prowess to the organization as they would to their for-profit employer.
While some of these conversations may be difficult to have with a potential or existing board member, doing so could save relationships and set the organization up for maximum success.