How to Build a Better Nonprofit Board of Directors Today
We know that your board is amazing and that you appreciate them so, so much–but making the most of their time can be … challenging. In fact, it's happening right now, isn't it? You're gritting your teeth in frustration over something that fell between the cracks. And hey, we know your board wants to be helpful, they yearn to make a difference, they're itching to Get Things Done. But somehow ... well, let's just say that now you understand the phrase "too many board members in the kitchen."
We’re here today to provide you with some great resources to help you get your board in tip-top, super change-making shape. Let’s start with the basics, and then we’ll dive into all the nooks and crannies. By the end of this guide, everyone will be on board with your plan. (We had to say it.)
First, here are six things you can do rightthisminute to bring your board to a higher plane of productivity.
Cancel the meeting
Even if you don't actually cancel the meeting. Just wipe the slate clean; cancel the old meeting in your head and start with a new meeting style. This time, make it worth your time. Time is money, money is power, power is pizza, and pizza is knowledge.
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Break it up
Make it up
It's time you set some ground rules for your board members. If you don't have a plainly-written job description that your board members can refer to, draw one up now. No joke, this could be a game-changer for members of your board that are floundering without clear-cut direction.
Shake it up
Consider shedding some dead weight. Yes, we mean letting board members go. You may find that it's not necessary, but you won't know until you take a hard look at what your members are doing for your organization. If they're not bringing value to the table, ask yourself this tough question: "Why are they on the board?"
Your organization deserves an army of dedicated, engaged board members. Today's the day you start enlisting the best supporters around.
Expand the board
Your organization deserves an army of dedicated, engaged board members. Remember that time like a minute ago when you wrote a board member job description? Send that bad boy to your new Recruitment committee and get them enlisting the best supporters around.
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Small-yet-Effective Improvements Nonprofits Can Make Today: A List to Share with Your Board
After you’ve made a few high-impact moves to build a better board, it’s time to delegate some responsibility to board members themselves. They play an important role in the governance and leadership of your nonprofit, so why not challenge them to plan for their best term yet? By working with your board members to set ambitious goals and expectations, everyone can get on track to be productive and successful.
Commit to showing up and being prepared
Real talk for a sec. How is your board’s attendance rate, historically? Do they show up to the majority of meetings? And when they do show up, are they prepared? This might seem like a basic commitment, but showing up and being prepared is important for board members. Give your board members a goal, like showing up to 9 out of 10 meetings. Or! Gamify this goal to encourage accountability and make it really fun.
Also, encourage them to be prepared when they arrive at board meetings. This includes reading board reports and financials prior to the meeting, as well as any other documents you may send out ahead of time. Be sure to circulate this information a few days prior to the meeting so that they have time to review it. Honestly, showing up and being ready to do the dang thing is such a reasonable ask... They can make it a reality!
Get the training and support you need to succeed
How many of your board members have prior board experience? Have they had some training or education in the roles and responsibilities of a nonprofit board? Having training can be super helpful for your board members. Not only will it help them better understand their duty as a board member, it can encourage them to be more engaged. When you make your budget, consider setting aside some professional development money specifically for board members. If purse strings are feeling a little tight, seek out some less expensive or free resources like books, webinars, and even online articles. A team that learns together succeeds together!
Think of it like this: when your board has their act together, it means you and your team can focus on your jobs, not running interference or untangling sticky board situations.
Take more action and follow through
Chances are your board isn't showing up just to vote on and approve items on the agenda. It's reasonable to request them to do some work, be it fundraising, research, or attending community events. Set a resolution to encourage more action and make sure you follow through with it. At the end of board meetings, make sure the entire board is clear on next steps and action items. Double down by having your board chair or secretary send out a reminder email after the meeting, so no one can claim that they didn't know.
Check your directors' insurance
Nonprofit boards are liable for more than they may realize. That’s why it’s important to have directors' insurance. This protects board members in the event of a lawsuit or legal issue. Make sure your board members know what their liabilities are and what the directors' insurance covers. If you don’t have directors' insurance, make it a top priority to get a policy ASAP.
Create a succession plan
You may wish that some of your board members will stay on your board forever, but that’s not likely to happen. Board members tend to cycle off at the end of their terms, and in some cases, sooner. Your board needs to have a succession plan in place for recruiting, hiring, and onboarding new board members. This could be a committee task or you could make it a board-wide initiative.
Succession planning is crucial for all board members, but especially your board chair role. Be clear about who the next board chair will be and what you and your current board chair are doing to prepare the person in the wings. This is a big role to take on, and it comes with a learning curve. With some forward planning and training, you can make sure your next board chair is prepared and ready for the challenge.
Support the wellbeing of the Executive Director and staff
Nonprofit work is hard work! Since board members aren’t in the trenches in quite the same way as full-time staff, they may not see the full picture. Board members should encourage the Executive Director and staff to work reasonable hours, take their vacation days, and practice self-care. Supporting the ED and staff will encourage positive working relationships between everyone and a better working environment in the office.
Boards can also support the ED and staff by not micromanaging and respecting the chain of command. Day-to-day management is not the responsibility of board members. Establishing and respecting boundaries around board duties will keep everyone happier in the long run, trust us.
Make a personal gift to show your support
Board participation in philanthropy isn’t just good for your nonprofit’s fundraising bottom line, it’s a great way for board members to demonstrate their commitment to the cause. It doesn’t have to be a 4-, 5- or 6-figure gift; personal donations of your time, treasure, or talent from each and every board member can demonstrate that the board collectively supports the organization in all the ways that matter most.
Nonprofit boards play an important role in the governance and leadership of an organization. Encouraging your board to be better, not just do better, is one of the ways you can support their leadership. They don’t have to commit to a complete personality overhaul to effect positive change—even setting one or two goals can make a big difference. Onward toward success!
The Three Committees Every Nonprofit BOD Should Have
Earlier, we briefly touched on the benefit of breaking up your board into committees. Committees will allow you to push-pull your board of directors into being efficient, productive, and even a little radical. It's not as far-fetched of an idea as you might think, really. Kind of like that lady in the 80's commercial who makes the Rice Krispie treats—you remember how she fooled her family into thinking she spent hours on those gooey, crispy goodies, don't you?
So let's just get it done, already! Without further ado, here are the committees you need and how to use them to make your kickass board super-effective.
1. Finance Committee
The expectation for this committee is that they'll advise on the creation of your annual budget, carefully consider large expenses, and look out for the financial future of your organization. It's a big job, but by helping you shoulder this load, your nonprofit's stability will be strengthened immeasurably.
But do they need to paw around in your organization's day-to-day budget? No. You and your staff have that covered.
Today, block out a half hour to pull up your budget and mark items that your Finance Committee can monitor, items that your staff should have control over, and items that need research or votes to move forward. Then lay it out. Your staff should be able to focus on ground-level expenses while your board tracks the make-or-break stuff.
Protip: don't just throw anyone with a businessy-sounding job title on your finance committee. Even if Gretchen is an accountant by day, she may not want to do more number-crunching for your nonprofit; it's possible her real passion lies in networking and fundraising. Let your board members guide you in making committee placements.
2. Fundraising Committee
Here's your big takeaway for this committee: These people should be your org introducers and evangelists so you can run the show. The Fundraising Committee's job is to encourage giving by sharing your mission with the world.
That's it. They shouldn't be planning the events or picking the napkins; this committee should be getting donors to show up, buy tables, and enjoy your fundraising events. And giving money while they're at it.
Email your Fundraising Committee today with specific asks related to upcoming events, holidays, and networking opportunities. Tell them who on your team is handling the detail work of securing venues, writing and sending marketing emails, and choosing napkins—this is not their job, no matter how much they like decorating. Your board members have bigger fish to fry, so don't shy away from giving them concrete, high-level goals and holding them accountable.
3. Recruitment Committee
This committee's purpose is all in the name: Recruitment. Their task is to identify, engage, and onboard people who will be good stewards of your nonprofit's mission to the outside world. As they do their job, they should definitely be keeping a few key things in mind: the diversity of your board, the required duties of a board member, and the type of person the board wants to have representing the nonprofit.
One thing you can do right now to increase the effectiveness of your Recruitment Committee is providing them with a clear idea of the ideal board member—in the Marketing world, this is called a persona—because knowing your who you're looking for makes recruitment a heckuva lot easier.
If you’re looking for that overachiever A+, here are two other committees you may want to consider:
This committee ensures that the nonprofit is adhering to standards laid out by the org's mission. It's their job to speak up when it's time to fire a board member, when your org's mission and vision aren't being adhered to, and when your nonprofit may be running afoul of legal requirements. The Governance Committee also nominates members for board roles and evaluates overall board effectiveness.
Diversity and Inclusion Committee:
The Fine Print: The Importance of Nonprofit Board Training
You’ve done your part, your board has done their part, and you’re all primed for success. But before you sign off the day, you want to iron out all those nitty-gritty legal details. The reality is that nonprofit boards have exhaustive responsibilities covering public and fiduciary obligations. In order for any nonprofit to be successful, roles must be created with descriptions attached, and those positions must adhere to the role descriptions as prescribed. Let’s quickly review what you need to know.
Like many organizations, nonprofits must remain accountable to their volunteers, donors, benefactors, and ultimately to themselves as well. This also includes being accountable for all aspects of the fundraising process.
In simple terms, a nonprofit exists to uphold the public trust. They must remain worthy of public support and be recognized by governmental agencies for the purposes of both trust and tax benefits associated with the nonprofit.
As for the board directors, their roles and responsibilities include providing oversight to ensure the organization's purpose is carried out, legal responsibilities to the nonprofit, and to ensure all ethical legislation has been addressed and met.
Nonprofit Boards Have Three Legal Obligations
Duty of Care
To provide discretion in all manners of spending. Boards must ensure the smart use of all assets and that goodwill is used toward the facility and the people involved with the mission.
Duty of Loyalty
Each and every transaction made in the nonprofit must be accountable and only completed in furtherance to the organization's mandate and mission. This includes the recognition and disclosure of any and all conflicts of interest as either a nonprofit or as an individual member for the nonprofit organization. All decision-making must be done with the sole best interest of the charity in mind. No one member supersedes the needs of the organization.
Duty of Obedience
All laws must be obeyed. All regulations governing charitable status must be adhered to. Internal by-laws will be created to support the bigger picture nature of legal obligations.
Basic Responsibilities of a Nonprofit Board of Directors
Determining the organization's mission and purpose
It is incumbent upon the nonprofit to show all persons connected that the purpose for the existence of the nonprofit is understood and justified. This is most often accomplished by issuing a mission statement.
Selecting the CEO, Managing Director, or Executive Director
This person will be the public face of the organization. They will determine the steps to be taken with respect to directing the nonprofit toward maintaining solvency and trust. While this is a senior, vital role to the nonprofit, it does not release any of the board members from their obligations. Now more than ever, the board must maintain contact with the organization as they will need to assess the executive's performance regularly as this remains a board function as well.
Conducting the organizational planning process
As is often the case, nonprofit boards will insist on thorough organizational plans to be prepared and submitted without any room for error. The bottom line is that all board members have made a commitment, and it is vital that they see this in the form of an organizational planning strategic plan document. It is imperative to know who does what throughout the organization.
This plan is not a one-time occurrence. It must be regularly submitted or changed as events require it to be amended. This needs to be recorded in the change management plan as well.
Determining program lifecycles
One of the fundamental roles of the board includes whether current and proposed programs are in line with the mission, purpose, and vision of the organization. There may be competing priorities, and while this is normal, it will ultimately be the board that will decide the fate of a particular program. It may be moved forward, scaled up or down, and or simply revoked or declined at the time of review.
The board must be able to self-reflect and self-assess
In short, the board needs to be its own court-of-appeal to self-regulate. Managing the grievance and governance process, any challenges to established processes or practices will all require the board to oversee the creation of standards of practice or procedure. This is to ensure all people involved with the nonprofit follow the guidelines set forth by the documents.
Expect the unexpected
Board members should be made aware that there may be other expectations of their participation with the nonprofit. Whether it is being asked to be an advocate, fundraise, and planning for succession are all general obligations for any board position.
Most often, a board member will sit on at least one committee. By performing this function, the board member will expect any presentations, etc. to reflect their expectations. It is advisable to structure the committee accordingly with one chair or a co-chair setup. All presentations, recommendations, or results will be made to this group with time left for Q&A from the board member.
Whew! That was a lot of fine print. Basically, it’s critical that the board oversees all documentation related to agendas and meeting minutes of meetings, while the secretary (scribe) has responsibility to formally record your meetings. It’s the board’s responsibility to maintain any meeting documentation and ensure its accuracy.
So there you have it: your A-Z to-do list for a high-performing board, ready to dig in and get things done–and, most importantly, make your life easier.
Nonprofit Board of Directors FAQ
What is a nonprofit board of directors?
A board is the governing body for a nonprofit. They oversee a nonprofit’s activities.
What are the board’s main responsibilities?
In addition to the basics, like attending regular meetings and hiring an ED, the board’s main responsibilities are to support the nonprofit financially and strategically through advocacy and communication.
What are the roles on a nonprofit board?
Typically, there’s a president/chair, vice president/vice chair, secretary, and treasurer. If you have committees (and we hope you do), each committee also has a chair.
How many members should you have on your board?
It totally depends! Each state has a minimum number though. You can have three or you can have 40, but we’d recommend something in the middle.