How To Keep Your Nonprofit Board Effective
Your nonprofit board is charged with the responsibility of keeping your nonprofit afloat. But how can you ensure that the board continues to be invested in your nonprofit and keep itself afloat as well? Keeping your nonprofit board effective will keep your nonprofit open, working, and making a difference. You’ve already done the work to structure your nonprofit board, keep them on track by reading on below.
Maintaining focus on your nonprofit's mission.
With all of the technicalities that come with the territory of running a nonprofit organization, its mission can sometimes fall through the cracks or get buried under all of the bureaucracy of your nonprofit. You can remedy this as a board by first adopting a mission-driven approach, framing all meetings and strategy creation within the nonprofit’s mission. The Nonprofit Answer Guide invites your nonprofit board to ask itself a few questions in executing this mission driven approach:
- What good is your nonprofit doing for society?
- How important is the work that you do?
- Does your nonprofit’s mission mean something to people, does it have emotional weight for the higher ups in your nonprofit? This plays into why your nonprofit mission statement is important: it has the ability to resonate with others. Does your mission resonate?
- Or is your nonprofit’s mission merely a selling point in order to secure funds (through donations, fundraisers, grants)?
- What competitive edge does your nonprofit have? Is everyone clear on what that edge is?
- Do you know who your biggest supporters are? Are you familiar with the people who are working towards fulfilling your nonprofit’s mission?
Remember, one of the key responsibilities of your board is to evaluate and assess the strategic plans (for fundraising, budgeting, marketing, etc.) of your organization to ensure that they are productive, effective, and mission-centric. If your board finds itself stump on where to start with these areas, we recommend doing some light reading by utilizing our articles on why nonprofit advertising is important and how you can improve your nonprofit marketing strategy.
Furthermore, be diligent with your board in guaranteeing all programs and sponsorships that come to your nonprofit from outside sources are still in line with your nonprofit’s mission and values. If such an opportunity comes along that you all agree could be beneficial to your nonprofit, your board should take the time to do their research, weigh the pros and cons, and strategically plan for that opportunity. Establish open communications between your board, your chairperson, and your Executive Director. Make sure that they are continuously in conversation with each other concerning your nonprofit, keeping the mission central to those conversations.
Ensuring that board members do so keeps them connected to the ins and outs of your organization in a significant way through their participation. Having a clear mission that is in line with your nonprofit and its cause will help foster board commitment.
We have done a lot of the leg work for you by reading through the various articles on the subject of board operations and governance. Below we have collected all of that information and condensed it into this master list for your reference, drawing on the Bridgespan Group, National Council of Nonprofits, and Shana Lynch’s “David Larcker: Nonprofit Boards Fall Short” for Stanford Business.
When improving board governance in your nonprofit:
- Your mission must be central: Like previously discussed, your nonprofit’s mission must be fundamental to everything that you do, while being aware of the resources that your nonprofit has at its disposal to make it happen.
- Your mission must be understood: Your nonprofit’s mission must be recognized at all upper levels; the board, staff leaders, management, Executive Director, chairperson of the board, etc. Your board should have a separate meeting to discuss your nonprofit’s mission with the individuals who fit into that listing and how your board can help make it happen.
- Form clear objectives and tactics for making that mission a reality: According to Lynch, “One of the executive director’s primary tasks is to develop goals and strategies that will make meaningful progress toward achieving the organization’s mission.” Additionally, one of the tasks given to board members is to support the executive director in all endeavors for the nonprofit, including creating a game plan to put the mission into motion and realized.
- Employ a management system: Implement some policies through which to measure your board members and their successes as individuals and as a whole.
- Observe the Executive Director: Keep your ED in check by evaluating his or her effectiveness and performance. This will also be a valuable exercise in “succession planning,” where your board can discuss the process of bringing in someone new in the event that your current ED is replaced.
- Gather the best of the best together: Lynch says this most eloquently saying that your nonprofit should “Compose your board of individuals with skills, resources, diversity, and dedication to address the needs of the nonprofit.” Having a mix of both passionate and experienced people serving on your board will only benefit your nonprofit.
- Clearly outline board member roles and responsibilities: We feel that we cannot stress this point enough for nonprofits. Reaching out to interested individuals is good practice in trying to bring new people onto your board, but you have to drive that interest home by illustrating exactly what they will do when they take a seat on your board. “job descriptions,” according to the National Council of Nonprofits, “can help board members feel comfortable in their roles as officers of a nonprofit.” This doesn’t just apply to new board members; seasoned board members can always use a good reminder of the reason they are on the board and what is expected of them. If you need a refresher on what those roles and responsibilities are, read our article on what nonprofits should expect from their board members.
- Determine policies to govern your board: These policies will be meant to ensure that your board is “well-defined” and that your committees address the needs of your nonprofit with guidance in addressing important decisions and crucial issues.
- Clarify liability, financial responsibilities, and insurance: Your board members should be made aware that under certain circumstances, they may be held liable by the actions of the nonprofit, such as “failure to pay withholding taxes on an employee’s wages,” according to the National Council of Nonprofits. Additionally, “Directors and officers liability insurance for nonprofits doesn’t only cover board members and officers; it also generally covers the CEO and other staff as well as the nonprofit’s corporate actions.” These areas should typically be covered in your board orientation, but it should periodically be revisited, especially if changes have been made.
- Educate your board members: Look into your state’s associate of nonprofits for resources to help educate your board members in areas that they may need additional training in, such as in person sessions or webinars online. Nonprofit management programs for your use through local universities and colleges but can also be found at volunteer centers and community foundations. Consider speaking to a professional with experience in nonprofit management to get some additional pointers.
- Conduct regular assessments: Evaluate your board members individually and your board as a whole overall in performance and effectiveness.
To help with board organization:
- Set up a schedule of meetings that addresses the year ahead, taken in conjunction with your nonprofit’s master calendar.
- Make sure that all materials needed for meetings and related projects (agendas, paperwork, articles, etc.) are prepared and handed out to board members two to three weeks ahead of when the meeting scheduled, which leads to the next point.
- Approach all meetings with agenda and materials in hand.
- Board members are expected to attend meetings having at least reviewed the materials needed for that particular meeting. It may seem like grade school, but coming to each meeting prepared in some way will assist in the smooth progression of each meeting.
- Keep meetings productive and concise and encourage board member involvement in the conversation. Even if board members come to the meeting unprepared for one reason or another, contributing to the conversation at hand is another way that they are able to participate.
Assessing and evaluating your board.
Although the evaluation process is generally something that is generally seen as a pain, no matter the context, it is an integral procedure in assessing the health, if you will, of your nonprofit board. Through the evaluation process, your board can determine which areas are lacking and if members require additional training and support in order to fulfill their objectives. Evaluations hold the board accountable for the decisions they make and the actions they take in the name of your nonprofits. It also maintains the guarantee that the actions of the board are still in line with your nonprofit and its mission, values, goals, and identity. The evaluation process will also serve to open up the dialogue to address strengths and weaknesses of individual members and the board as a whole. Generally, it is suggested that you make a board assessment every two years and before a board member and chairperson begins a new term of service in the nonprofit.
In order conduct useful and effective evaluations:
- All members must consent to participate in the evaluation process. (Alternatively, make it clear with your board members when they sign on that they will be subject to a periodic evaluation.)
- Do your homework. Assemble a group of people (an ad hoc committee) to look into how board evaluations are done, what tools are available, what addresses you board members’ needs in making the evaluation process a smooth one.
- The evaluation process can be a lengthy one, set aside some time to complete it.
- Consider bringing in someone from outside of your nonprofit to help with the process and provide an impartial perspective.
- After results are compiled and presented, discuss ways to improve.
Board members can also play a more direct part in these evaluations by evaluating themselves, the performance of the whole board, and peer evaluations.
The evaluation process doesn’t just focus on board members; the chairperson must also be evaluated in order to assess his or her performance and effectiveness as a leader. Similarly to the board, strengths and weaknesses of the chair and how he or she handles issues within the board will be evaluated, along with their “ability to keep board members engaged.” Evaluations of the chairperson of the board can be done anonymously by board members and/or by a governance committee, depending on the policies your nonprofit board has in place. The results should be presented and discussed in a private meeting.
Board member engagement.
Your board and its members should be actively involved the decision-making and planning processes of your organization, such as drawing up marketing plans. But no other department in your nonprofit needs the board’s influence more than fundraising. Fundraising, as you already know, is the crux of every nonprofit, no matter its mission. Despite that common fact, board members still approach fundraising with a hint of apprehension.
Fired Up Fundraising’s Gail Perry proposes a few helpful tips in overcoming this apprehension:
- Work with your board to put together an annual fundraising plan with specific members assigned to specific “program objectives.”
- “Communicate the community impact of the results of your efforts.” Let your board see the real applications and results of their involvement in fundraising for your nonprofit and its mission.
- Assign roles and jobs to each member and help them understand what that role entails and impact it can have on the results of your fundraiser. These roles should help them conceptualize how they can individually contribute to achieve the fundraising goals set to help your mission.
- Encourage constant communication and keep your board members informed of the progress of fundraising campaigns.
After getting everyone on the same page, have a specific meeting that focuses solely on fundraising (tips, strategies, tricks, techniques) and training to help them become more educated in and comfortable with the subject. If members of your board are still reluctant or opposed to fundraising, have a meeting with them to discuss any lingering issues or worries they could have. Keeping your board involved will help its members better comprehend the role they will play in fundraising and give them time to become invested in the project and increase the level of engagement they will have.