Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during June-1993, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Healthy boards don’t just happen. They require careful recruitment of board members, appropriate orientation and training, attention to developing a true partnership between board and staff, and valuing the contribution of a group of unpaid but highly dedicated people to your organization’s work.
The longer I work with nonprofit organizations, the less adamant I am that only organizations with strong, highly effective boards are able to do decent work. There are many dysfunctional organizations with weak and ineffectual boards that still manage to make a difference in the communities they serve. However, organizations with a strong, active board that works in partnership with a strong, competent staff are able to accomplish more, have greater impact, and bring greater satisfaction to the staff and board members themselves. Organizations that pay
attention to the development of board skills and leadership are more likely to feel good about the role of the board and its partnership with staff.
In this series of articles, we are most concerned with the role of the board in fundraising. However, a board that is involved and effective in fundraising will be a board that is appropriately involved in many other aspects of an organization’s work, including long range planning, budgeting and fiscal oversight, program development and personnel issues. Building and strengthening your board so that it works well in all these areas is a process that continues for the life of your organization.
This article describes a series of steps that the board can use to identify its strengths and weaknesses, and to develop a plan to make the board and the work that it does have real impact on your organization’s ability to accomplish its goals
Although the steps described are purposely ordered as follows, this is a circular rather than a linear progression; start at the step most relevant to your group.
The people who make up your board are, first, individuals with specific skills, experience and interest in the work you do. A very useful though often overlooked step is to analyze the skills and attributes of the people currently serving on the board. Assessing the characteristics and qualifications of current board members will help you determine gaps that need to be filled. The easiest way to do this is to make a chart (see page 10) with the skills and experience needed listed in the far left-hand column and the names of your board members across the top, each name heading up a column. You may find it helpful to group the board qualifications under the following headings: Skills and Expertise, Representation, and Commitment to the Organization.
You need to determine which specific qualifications to include within each broad category for the most effective functioning of your board. Every board will have a slightly different list. Skills and expertise might include fundraising (including experience with specific strategies such as personal solicitation, special events, or grant writing experience), legal, public relations or accounting. Representation refers to the various constituencies you want to include on your board, such as the community your organization serves and current or former clients, as well as gender and racial/ethnic diversity. Commitment to your organization includes a belief in and understanding of your mission, a willingness to be active (including in fundraising), and having time available for the work required.
Once you have completed the grid, checking off the categories filled by each current board member, you will have a clear picture of both the strengths of your board and where gaps exist. You may find you have people with the appropriate skills to fulfill board roles and responsibilities, but few members with sufficient time to give. You may have good gender balance, but not much racial diversity. By identifying your weaknesses, you can begin recruiting new
board members in a thoughtful, planned way. This process also forces your board to begin recruitment based on what is required to carry out its work rather than on who board and staff members know.
Too often board members are recruited haphazardly, at the last minute, and without sufficient pool of candidates from which to choose. A typical scenario is a meeting at which the board suddenly realizes that several members’ terms are about to expire. After unsuccessfully trying to get the departing board members to stay on for another term, they spend the rest of the meeting wracking their brains for any live bodies they can think of, limiting the pool of candidates to people they know personally. (This is not the case for membership organizations, where board members are recruited from the membership and elected onto the board by the membership. This section is aimed primarily at organizations that select board members from the community at large.) A broader and ultimately more successful recruitment process must look beyond friends and acquaintances of current board and staff members.
Board recruitment is a key step in the development of the board because the quality of the candidates you identify will ultimately determine the quality of the team that becomes your board. It is important to give the recruitment process enough time to allow you to identify and cultivate the right potential new board members.
A nominating committee of the board is usually in charge of recruitment. Their main function is to coordinate the identification, recruitment and selection of new members. Their final recommendations are brought back to the full board for approval. While nominating committees are often ad hoc, meeting only for the few months of the year when board selection is imminent, I recommend the committee expand its role to include orientation of new board members and that they meet year-round to avoid the lastminute crunch to find new board members.
In developing a successful recruitment process, you must first identify the groups of people from which you can seek good candidates. Start with those closest to the organization. These might include clients (and former clients), colleagues, volunteers, donors, community members active in other organizations and local business people. After exhausting those possibilities, think about casting the net beyond people who are already known to your organization. Use your newsletter to publicize openings on your board. Ask the people you know in sister organizations, local businesses and government for their suggestions. Go back to people you’ve asked in the past who weren’t able to consider joining the board at that time. A colleague recently told me of a board that had asked her to join every year for the past three years; their persistence paid off when she rotated off another board, giving her the time to meet their request
Organizations that use volunteers effectively for a variety of tasks and projects also have a pool of candidates “in training.” People may be more willing initially to get involved in a short-term, time-limited capacity, such as joining a special event committee or assisting in program work. After they’ve proved to be reliable and have increased commitment to the organization as a result of their volunteer activities, they may be ideal candidates to consider for a position on the board.
Each candidate should be interviewed to enable you and them to make an informed decision about their serving on the board. The interviewing team should include current board members, the executive director and other staff where appropriate. Plan the interviews with questions developed in advance, so that all candidates are asked the same questions. The interview should be seen as an opportunity not just for the board to decide on which candidates to select, but for the potential board members to find out more about the organization, what will be expected of them and whether or not they are willing and able to make the required commitment.
Here’s an example where putting more time and effort into board recruitment had positive results. The board of directors of the Women’s Counseling Center (WCC) was barely functioning for more than a year. Their traditional process of recruiting new members was to beg people they knew to join the board; the morale of the group was consistently low. Finally, they decided to restructure and expand the board, developing a selection process for new board members. They formed a committee that created a questionnaire to distribute to potential board candidates. The questionnaire was used as a preliminary screening mechanism. It asked about the candidates’ experience in nonprofit organizations, fundraising experience and/or willingness to learn, time available and what they felt they could offer the organization. The committee reviewed the questionnaires and selected several candidates for interviews.
By creating this more formal process and asking what potential candidates could offer the organization, the dynamic shifted. Rather than thinking of board membership as a thankless chore, people started to see it as a privilege. In addition to helping identify the kind of people who could make the commitment required, the process focused the organization on its expectations of board members. By clarifying and communicating its needs to the community, it was able to attract people who were willing to work and who wanted to be part of the organization’s leadership. (See also “Recruiting Better Board Members,” page 13.)
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To carry out their jobs successfully, board members need to know what is expected of them. This may sound obvious, but far too many board members have no idea what they are supposed to be doing. An orientation process for all new board members is an important step in integrating them onto the board and clarifying their roles and responsibilities. It is useful to create a manual—a set of written documents about the organization—and distribute it to each board member when they join. The board manual should include:
- Mission statement
- Brief description of programs
- Current budget
- Most recent financial statement
- List of current funding sources
- Organizational chart or description of structure
- List of board members’ names & addresses
- Long range plan (if one exists)
To reinforce the material in the manual, it’s useful to hold an orientation meeting. It should include a presentation about the organization’s purpose, programs and structure, introductions of staff and current board members, and plenty of time for questions and general discussion that begins to involve the new members in the organization.
Another helpful activity is a “buddy system,” where experienced board members are assigned to new ones for their first six months on the board. The experienced board members are expected to check in with their buddies once a month to answer questions and provide any support the new members need to participate fully in the work of the board. This can be particularly useful when new members do not know many (if any) of the other board members, and for those who have never served on a board before.
Training on the roles and responsibilities of a nonprofit board can be extremely useful for both new and old members. A day-long retreat, separate from the pressures of a regular board meeting, can be used to educate members about the role of the board, to develop a bond and a sense of teamwork among board members, and to do problem solving on board-related concerns.
In addition, periodic training on specific topics such as fundraising, public relations or the particular issues your organization is working on is a way to expand the skills of your board members; it will often increase their commitment to your organization as well. For example, for a board that is reluctant to participate in fundraising, a special training session using an outside expert can help convince them of the importance of their involvement.
An increasingly popular mechanism to clarify the specific commitment of board members is a written statement of agreement. A sample statement is described and presented on page 17. The statement should be drafted according to the needs of your organization; it should include general areas of responsibility of all board members (such as number of board meetings they are required to attend per year, responsibility to participate in fundraising, length of their term of office, etc.) as well as the specific area of responsibility that each board member agrees to take on.
If you want to have an even more detailed description of tasks, you can create job descriptions for officers and members of committees. Without requiring an arduous process, creating simple, task-oriented job descriptions can help board members understand what they are agreeing to do and how much time it will require. When board members develop their own job descriptions and/or statements of agreement they are often more likely to honor these commitments. Job descriptions and statements of agreement are also tools by which you can hold board members accountable.
A committed, skilled and diverse group of individuals is important to the success of your board. In addition, strong leadership, an agreed-upon process for decision making and a committee structure with clearly defined goals and tasks are key ingredients. People often join a board with the best intentions but then find the board’s expectations unrealistic. Think carefully about how much time is reasonable for board members to give (probably no more than 8 hours a month), and
make sure the workload is realistic. (See also “Board Members: How Hard Should They Work?” page 18.) Your organization’s by-laws are its governing rules. They spell out the way the board conducts its business. Many board members have never read their organization’s by-laws, and many by-laws are so outdated that the board has not followed them for years. By-laws should be simple and should include the terms of office (board members should not be permitted to serve life-terms); roles and responsibilities of board members, including officers; the process of removing board members; frequency of full board meetings; the number required for a quorum, etc.
Determining how decisions will be made is one of the most conflict-ridden aspects of board functioning. Are decisions made by consensus or by a majority vote? Which decisions are made by the board and which by the staff? When does the board chair or president have the authority to make a decision alone? If a decision has to be made between board meetings, what is the process to do so? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. What is important is that your board takes the time to think them through and decides how it is going to function.
Committees are the structures by which most board work gets done. Full board meetings are most effective when used to make decisions, delegate work and determine future directions for the organization. In deciding on how many and which committees to form on your board, establish the fewest number of committees you need to get the work done. Rather than having 10 different standing (i.e., permanent) committees, establish a committee for a specific function, then disband it when the job is completed. This keeps committees alive and functioning with a clearly defined purpose. Such short-term committees can be called “task forces” or “ad hoc committees” to reinforce the idea of their temporary nature. Some of the committee’s boards need to have at some time are fundraising (which can be divided into subcommittees such as major donors, special
events, corporate support), personnel, nominations, finance/ budget, long-range planning and program.
Each committee should set goals that are then discussed and approved by the entire board. A committee chair can make sure that the work gets done, that reports are made to the entire board, and that the committee has enough active members to carry out its work.
Many board committees recruit volunteers who are not board members to expand the pool of people available to do the work. For some committees, such as personnel, this may
not be appropriate, but fundraising is certainly an area that lends itself to participation from non-board volunteers.
With all of these structural aspects in place, there remains something less tangible but equally important in developing an effective board of directors—building a real team with the staff of the organization. Building a partnership between board and staff requires mutual trust and respect and a willingness on both sides to be challenged and to be open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Board members will be more likely to follow through on their commitments and to give beyond the minimum requirements defined by the organization if the culture is one in which people’s time and contributions are appreciated, there are no hidden agendas or power struggles, and working with others in the organization—fellow board members, staff, and others—is fun, challenging, and results in all participants feeling they play an important role in making the organization as powerful and effective as it can be.
Boards of directors, like the organizations they are designed to govern, are always changing. Because the needs of your organization change over time, the role of your board will also change. Your board will be more “hands on” in the early years of an organization’s life or if there are few paid staff. As the organization grows, the staff increases and its daily operations become more complex, the board generally expands its governing, planning and fundraising roles, and has less involvement, if any, in the day-to-day work.
The development of a strong, well-functioning board of directors does not happen overnight—particularly if your board is in any kind of crisis. Do not attempt to institute lots of changes at once. Choose the most important areas to strengthen, develop a long-term plan for further changes, and then evaluate the process as you go. Check out how you’re doing on each step in the cycle on an annual basis. By continuing to work on and refine the process, you will build a strong board that can be flexible enough to change and grow over time to meet the needs of your organization.
The process of building and strengthening your board of directors will be most satisfying and productive if initiative for change comes from the board itself. If the executive director or other key staff are the ones who decide that the board needs help, or has a particular problem or challenge it needs to work on, the chances of real change happening are slim. If, however, even a small number of board members have identified areas of concern, their leadership with the other board members will have much greater impact. Ultimately it is really up to the board members themselves to make sure they are fulfilling their responsibilities, and leadership for board development must also come from within the board itself.
Stephanie Roth is co-publisher of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal. She is also a consultant and trainer for nonprofit organizations in fundraising and board development.