Small-yet-Effective Improvements Nonprofits Can Make Today: Board Member Edition

February 20, 2020
7 minutes

If you’re an Executive Director or a senior leader at your nonprofit, you may be thinking about how you wish you could do things differently. Newsflash: you can! We even put together a list of Small-yet-Effective Improvements that Executive Directors can make to help you chart out a great future at your nonprofit. But let’s not forget about another important group of leaders at your nonprofit—your board members. They may not be at your office five days a week, but they play an important role in the governance and leadership of your nonprofit. 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 any amount 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!

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