Five Steps to Get Your Nonprofit Board to Peak Performance

A board of directors is an integral part to any organization. Board members offer a unique range of education, experience, and skills from which to draw to help companies prosper and meet strategic milestones and goals.

But a board of directors plays an especially critical role for the nonprofit organization, which is often strapped for cash, staff, and other resources. In addition to its financial health and strategy, nonprofit organizations are also uniquely tasked with working toward a societal mission, with specific and sometimes less-measurable standards, values, and objectives. And because nonprofits are overseen by its board of directors, there are added responsibilities for those board members to ensure that the organization is fulfilling its purpose and to be accountable for information and reporting to both the government and the public.

We often hear from the nonprofit CEOs and Directors that they want to get more out of their boards. Here are some tips to maximizing the nonprofit board:

1. Establish the Right Makeup of Members. Think in terms of the “Three W’s”: wisdom, wealth, and work. Every board member should share the organization’s mission; beyond that, think about finding a combination of members who can help with wisdom, wealth, and work. Wisdom: What skills, knowledge, and expertise do you need in your organization but don't currently have within your staff ranks? Wealth: Nonprofits live and die by fundraising. Your board should contribute a meaningful percentage of your annual budget through their own contributions and connections to other donors. Work: Board members often volunteer their time and talents to help with special events or day-to-day operations. Not every board member will bring all three W's, but your overall mix should have the right level for your organization's current needs. Nonprofits vary from one to the next in terms of what makes the right makeup of board members, dependent on the organization’s work, stage of growth, and current priorities.

2. Ensure your Board is Engaged. Before bringing on new board members, ask that this be one of their top philanthropic commitments. Set expectations about how often they need to attend meetings and what financial commitment they can make. Set term limits, so that you have an automatic point to revisit their commitment, and try to stagger term limits across the board so they aren't all up at the same moment. If a board member isn't meeting your expectations, don't be afraid to have a frank conversation and consider shifting them to an advisory board, where they could continue to be helpful without the commitment of regular meetings.

3. Maximize Meeting Time. Give your board the tools they need to succeed. Figure out the right cadence for engaging the board. Do you need meetings monthly or less often? You will be challenged if you are over- or under-engaging the board. Make sure they have materials to review a week or at least several work days in advance of any meeting. Use your board meetings for driving decisions, not just giving updates. Board members' time is valuable. If you can send updates and other information by email, do that and save meeting conversation for the issues at hand that require the board’s input or approval.

4. Use Committees to Drive Work. You will need some ongoing committees, such as finance or development, but you might also create ad-hoc shorter-term committees to handle big projects as they emerge. To help ensure any committee’s success, make sure the purpose and authority of the committee is clearly defined, and that the committee is aware of any reporting or communication is expected, to whom, and how often.

5. Work in Partnership with the CEO. The working relationship between board and CEO is of critical importance to the success of any nonprofit. Educating board members about the inner workings of the organization and their role in it can go a long way to helping them get up to speed quickly, and to view the CEO as a strategic partner. In return, the board should complete an annual performance review of the CEO, ensuring that he or she acts on any recommendations or priorities contained therein.

Our vChief consultants are uniquely qualified to support CEOs in the selection and organization of board members for nonprofit and for-profit organizations, as well as planning, and developing reports and presentations for board meetings.

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