Fixing Your Nonprofit Board: When Incremental Steps Aren't Enough

If your board is absent a person with expertise in a certain area -- like finance or law, go find and recruit the right person. If your board needs a bit of training and inspiration, bring in a terrific expert for a lively, illuminating session. In some cases, however, the board can't be fixed by simply adding a board member or two, or featuring a governance seminar.

Nonprofits face greater financial challenges than ever before; studies from the Nonprofit Finance Fund confirm our personal anecdotal experiences. This is also a time of extraordinary opportunity as new philanthropists come onto the scene, corporations and foundations show fresh interest in alternative funding approaches, and fees for services present innovative options.

Given such extreme challenges and opportunities, nonprofit boards have greater responsibilities than ever before. Furthermore, in my nearly thirty years of consulting to global, national, and regional nonprofit boards of directors, including foundations, health care institutions, and universities, I observe that boards are increasingly self-aware -- seeking to be more educated and effective in performing their board work. It's no coincidence that this awakening comes at a time of growing demand for accountability and transparency.

It's time for some boards to think about transformation

For NGOs/nonprofits facing significant strategic and financial challenges and opportunities, it's important to do more than make a few simple changes; it's time to consider the bigger picture of how the board functions.

In my work with boards, I start by facilitating a conversation with the CEO and board members about what the organization seeks to achieve in the next several years -- "the greater vision." Next we discuss the revenue model to achieve the greater vision. At that point -- and only at that point -- can I help the board to determine its role in working with the CEO to achieve the greater vision. At that point -- and only at that point -- can I help the board to determine the most efficient and effective structure and practices to accomplish its purposes.

Once the CEO and board sketch out the greater vision and revenue model, then we proceed to determine the following:

  1. The role of the board in achieving the organization's greater vision, including the revenue model for success
  2. Expectations of individual board members and a system of accountability (including financial contributions, fundraising, meeting attendance, etc.)
  3. The size and structure of the board for efficiency and effectiveness, including committee structure
  4. A plan for board composition based on the particular expertise, experience, and diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and networks that are needed in order to achieve the greater vision, including the revenue model for success
  5. Board practices for efficiency and effectiveness, including board meeting agendas
  6. Leadership succession practices to ensure the most qualified board leadership, and a dynamic pipeline for the future

I find that most board members are relieved and enthusiastic to have clarity about their roles and how they can add value, and to be involved on boards that will function efficiently and effectively. Most board members have joined boards because they want to be useful to a cause that they care about.

Additionally, boards that organize themselves according to this approach have a tremendous advantage in recruiting and retaining the most desirable board members. The opportunity to serve on a high functioning board is a huge plus.

In order to vanquish the threats, while capturing and maximizing the opportunities, even the best nonprofit CEOs require truly high impact boards. Assess and enhance your board's composition, practices, and structure based on the direction in which you are taking the organization. This is the path to building a better world.