What’s the Deal with Nonprofit Boards? Part II

My last blog posting began to explore what I believe is one of the trickiest components of the nonprofit organization: the board of directors.

Having served on both sides of the nonprofit board relationship – as both executive director and board member – my contention is that by its very nature nonprofit boards are set up for some difficult challenges before they even begin the work of governance. I gave my arguments, as well as some ways organizations can work through these challenges, in my last entry, which focused on systems.

Once an organization gets the right system/model/policies in place, the next focus for boards, the one that is just as (if not more) important for organizations is the other “s”:  selection.

If you are begging people to join your board or allowing anyone with a pulse on it, you’ve got a big problem. Board recruitment is just as important as staff recruitment. It doesn’t matter that they are volunteers. What matters is that they play an incredibly important role, and they must illustrate their understanding of that role and their commitment to your organization before being permitted on the board.

What does this mean? Create a clear job description that defines a board member’s role, as well as the expectations throughout the year. Engage in a dialogue with potential board members before they come to a meeting. Pay attention to the research they’ve done on your organization and the questions they ask. Make sure they get what you do, and that they care enough about it to commit themselves to the board role…but are also willing to step back and let staff do their thing, too.

Just like with staff recruitment, it is a much better scenario to discover that someone is the wrong fit at the beginning and part ways before precious time and energy is spent, then to bring someone on who is the wrong fit and have them either stay on for the wrong reasons or go off through some kind of conflict. Who has time for that?

Once you bring in the right board members, orientation must begin immediately. New board members need to understand how the organization works, the part they play in it, how to read the organization’s budget and financial statements, and the expectations around board meetings and organizational events.

They must get to know their executive director and understand that relationship (also often tricky due to its very nature). Along the way every board member must be held consistently accountable to the expectations by the board president or chair.

Which leads me to my final words for today on boards…and they’re regarding the board leadership.

Just like the ED guides the organization’s operations, the board chair determines whether or not the board, and in many ways the organization, sinks or swims. The board needs to think ahead when they recruit new members as to who might play the critical roles of chair, vice chair and treasurer.

Succession cannot be discussed for the first time during the month preceding (or the month of) the election. You should not have to beg someone to step into the role of chair.

Instead, you must find those leaders who have the visionary understanding to guide the organization, the ability to lead discussions among diverse members, the stomach to discuss uncomfortable issues, the humility to appropriately manage their own personal investment and the knowledge that the role they play, and the role of the board, is serious business.

Want to talk more about boards? Post a comment or contact me at Deirdre@makemomentum.com.

Now…go do good, and do it well.