Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Mar/Apr 2015, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
I recently attended a training for executive directors and development directors where the facilitator asked if anyone in the room had a wonderful board of directors. My hand shot up. The facilitator looked at me with astonishment on her face and said, “In 20 years of working with nonprofits, I’ve never met an executive director who thinks he or she has a great board.”
Honestly, I was surprised. Nothing my organization does seems all that special, but she suggested I should write a short article about building a great board. So, what follows are some of my thoughts on how an executive director can build a great board of directors.
Recruit good people who are willing and able to work.
I have several criteria for board members. They must be committed to the issues, connected to the communities we serve, and willing and able to dedicate time to the work. I do not just want prestigious names on a board list. I want real people who can help build the organization. And, I want nice people who work well with others. One or two contrary people can really undermine a good board. Try to keep difficult people off your board—keeping them off is much easier than getting them off once they are on. My board of directors has a board development committee that recommends people to the board. I work with that committee in finding and vetting potential candidates.
Make sure you have terms and term limits.
No one wants to join a board forever. People should be recruited for a term of service and asked to recommit if the relationship is working for both the person and the organization. Placing a limit on terms so everyone rotates off eventually is also necessary. It brings freshness to the board and creates a natural end point for removing board members who are not a good fit with the organization.
Be clear on expectations.
Work with your board on developing a detailed set of expectations for board members. In addition to being helpful for the current board’s effectiveness, this will assist you when recruiting new board members who need to know what to expect. To compliment the generic expectations, creating a specific agreement annually with board members about what they can and want to do to help build the organization is crucial. We call this annual agreement our “Board Covenant.”
Welcome and orient new board members.
New board members should receive a board orientation packet and be given an in-person orientation led by a combination of board and staff members. The orientation packet is simply a compilation of the basic documents a new board member should have such as recent board meeting notes, financial documents such as budgets, and organizational policies.
Help board members get to know one another.
One of the reasons people serve on a board is to get to know other people with similar values. Make sure there is time built into your meetings to allow people to socialize and get to know one another. Board members who know one another work better together and feel more connected to the organization. They will look forward to board meetings because they will be meeting with friends.
Make meetings fun.
Board meetings should be interesting and engaging. Provide time for small group work. Ask the board to grapple with meaningful and thought-provoking questions, rather than simply sit passively and listen to reports. Thank creatively about how to get what you need from the meetings. Do your best to respect people’s time by starting and ending meetings on time.
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Provide board members with good information.
Board members cannot make good decisions if they don’t have good information. Board members don’t live and breathe issues like staff members do, so they have to be reminded of background and history on campaigns and issues. Years ago, I read an article that said, “Boards have no memory, and boards don’t read.” Neither is completely true, but consider this sentiment when preparing for meetings. No matter how many times you have sent out some document by mail or email, don’t assume everyone has read it.
Help board members do what they want (and promise) to do. Every board member wants to be helpful and productive. But people’s lives are busy, and many things can get in their way. This, as directors, we must build in time to help board members do what they want to do. They may need reminders, more information, some encouragement or some training. Don’t assume people will follow through without assistance.
Affirm, affirm, affirm.
A director must always affirm his or her board. Affirming is good for the director—it reminds the director that these volunteers do amazing work for the organization. When board members are affirmed, they feel valued and thus inspired to continue and deepen their commitment to the work. We all need and want to be affirmed. The director must play a lead role in affirming the good work of the board members. When asked about my board, I always reply, “I have the best board ever.” Indeed, I believe this to be the case, but directors should always speak positively about their boards.
Share the good work the board does.
Help staff members and other board members know about the important work board members are doing. Board work and engagement can be shared at staff meetings, in written reports and at board meetings.
Help those who can’t participate transition off the board.
Sometimes things going on in people’s lives prevent them from fully participating in the board. Either the board development chairperson, the board president or the director can have a conversation with that person about resigning from the board. Inactive board members are demoralizing for others.
Seek ways to engage and promote your board members.
Think of perks and opportunities for engaging and promoting board members. Ask them to speak at press conferences, promote their articles, invite them to share their expertise, or introduce them to people that would help them in other parts of their professional lives. Board members give a lot to the organization. Find ways to give back to them.
Be thankful for constructive criticism.
Even though it is tempting to be defensive when a board member criticizes us or something the organization did, be sure to thank the person for the feedback. Usually, they are only trying to help. We should be grateful that the person brought the concern to us.
Turn challenges into opportunities.
Whatever challenge you are facing, it probably is an opportunity to get the board more engaged. Have you been sued? Call a special board meeting to grapple with the problem. Are you going through a leadership transition? Create a board transition committee. Is there tension with another organization? Engage a group of board leaders in addressing it. Having the board grapple with serious issues is good for the outcome of the challenges (because board members are usually collectively wise) and good for them. Grappling with challenges helps board members get more deeply connected with the organization.
Acknowledge that most board problems are your fault.
When my board is not doing what I need it to do, it is usually my fault and not theirs. I haven’t organized them well, I haven’t given them adequate information to do something, or I haven’t equipped them to tackle a problem. Board problems usually mean that the director is not working well with and supporting her or his board. When I own my faults and do a better job organizing my board, the problems usually go away. Board members want to help, but they must be supported, encouraged, affirmed and organized. Directors can’t sit back and wait for their board to operate wonderfully. We must organize them to be wonderful. They want to be wonderful. They can be wonderful. But only when directors help organize them to be wonderful.
My board is wonderful. I love each member. Yes indeed, I have the best board ever.