5 Steps for Building a Nonprofit Board That Works

Image where Nonprofit Board Members Discuss issues for CDS Blogpost

Like Robert’s Rules of Orders that governs parliamentary procedures, or the Agendas and Minutes that move boards through the process of good management and top-notch record keeping, structure around board development can be a safeguard against the unimaginable. The viability of your organization depends on these basics of best practices in non-profit management.

A Nominating Committee that meets and reports back to the full board regularly can ensure that prospective members are well vetted and that the board is balanced in terms of diversity and community experience. It never hurts to have an accountant, an attorney and an educator on the board as well as a public administrator or a member with non-profit expertise. A process and timeline should be established that encourages all board members to contribute to the pool of prospects. Clarity around length and number of board terms and any anticipated openings can help organizations avoid the strain that results from the loss of long-serving board members or founder-members. Leave it to the nominating committee to consider how best to build a board with broad representation and to bring those nominees back to the entire board for a final review and vote.

Engaging New Board Members from Day One

In advance of accepting a board position, the nominee should sit down with the board chair or chair of the nominating committee for a formal interview to review the job description and any financial requirements, so that the prospective board member understands the expectations as well as terms of service. Upon being offered a board position, a formal orientation should be held to orient the new director. Staff may be called upon to help with this process. At many institutions, a one-page letter of welcome that includes a pledge-to-give and /or committee assignments is signed by the new member and the chair; sealing the deal and ensuring transparency.

Job Descriptions are Integral to Success

Job descriptions for both board members and any kind of advisory groups are essential, and examples are easy to come by. Check with your local Association of Fundraising Professionals, the National Council of Non-Profits or Board Source for templates on any of these standard tools. The field of non-profit management is all grown up now, with graduate programs at major universities like the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and a plethora of books on the topic. Just as non-profits should have access to job descriptions for the executive director and development, programmatic and administrative staff-that are reviewed annually-job descriptions for board members, auxiliary volunteer groups and any groups serving in an advisory capacity are essential. This is a necessary preparation for successful fundraising as well. Many funding organizations and agencies consider these standard tools along with bios or vitas on each board member when considering grant requests.

Working Board vs. Advisory Members

Defining the responsibilities of a board member versus advisors, an advisory council or an advisory committee is critical. The former meets regularly; makes decisions and votes on issues pertinent to the success of the non-profit. Advisors are generally not voting members unless this is otherwise detailed in By-laws or Letters of Incorporation. In fact, most organizations that have advisory groups do so to enhance the organization with community leaders whose names are broadly recognized or because advisory board members offer some special expertise. For example, Meet the Composer, a New York based organization founded in 1974, whose purpose was to support emerging composers and new composition, had an advisory board that included heavyweights like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. These fine artists were not voting members who attended meetings.

They merely applauded the work of the organization and could be called upon to attend events and speak highly about the value of the organization. These are all matters that should be carefully spelled out in job descriptions created by the board, a nominating committee and with the help of professionals in the field.

To ensure that your organization is prepared for the hard work ahead consider making each of these steps mandatory:

  • Job Descriptions. A thorough and explicit job description that defines the expectations and duties, and any financial and fundraising expectations (give and/or get).
  • Nominating Committee. A formal nominating committee that seeks nominations from other board members and the community at large to land the most talented, influential and affluent board possible (it should be considered a privilege to serve on your board).
  • Vetting New Board Members. A thorough vetting process: a prospective board member is usually impressed (not insulted) when they are made aware that they are under consideration for a board that doesn’t just accept anyone, but which is trying to ensure they recruit the most capable board members who can advance the cause of their organization.
  • Reviewing Progress. The board chair and CEO should sit with each board member to review their progress as you would staff members, discuss their committee assignment, and to make sure the member is engaged, fulfilled and clear about what they are supposed to be doing. If they feel their talents are better suited for a different committee, make that transition and get them engaged.
  • Disengaged Board Members. If a board member is disinterested, disengaged and not attending meetings, giving time and effort and not helping to give and/or get financial contributions, they should first be encouraged once or twice by the board chairman. If they do not respond, they should be graciously thanked for their service and asked to leave the board. Having term limits comes in handy in this situation, even if you put in exceptions for people who are top performers, such as board members who serve as an officer can serve one or two additional terms.

A strong board of directors/trustees is very helpful and necessary for setting policy and direction. If your work is important, you surely don’t want to leave your organization’s governing board to chance. Then, ideally the board needs to allow the professional staff to implement the policy and run the day to day operations, while keeping track of key performance indicators. In most organizations, where there are ‘friend-raisers’ or other special events, board members also need to be prepared to ‘roll up their sleeves’ and help get the real work done in the trenches, opening their rolodexes and helping with needed support.

Install these best practices and enjoy exceptional results. For CDS Fundraising.

Tara Holley is a CDS Senior Campaign Director. As a fundraising professional with a 30-year-career within the non-profit sector, Holley has served in senior fundraising positions for the Episcopal Church in New York City, Seminary of the Southwest and three major universities including The University of Texas at Austin, Texas State University and The George Washington University. She has served as consultant to a number of social-service organizations in Texas and Washington, D.C. including United Ways of Texas, Appleseed Foundation, and numerous art and cultural institutions. Holley is also experienced as both a funder and grantee.


Share this post

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.