Connecting Non-Profit Board Development & Strategy
Non-profit board development efforts should reflect the board’s two major responsibilities: strategic direction and executive oversight. This article includes four questions you should ask as you consider who you want to add to your non-profit board.
A non-profit board of directors has two major responsibilities. First, the board establishes and monitors the strategic direction the organization takes to achieve its mission and vision. From strategic planning though execution, this is the board’s most important responsibility. Second, in non-profits with paid staff, the board is responsible for hiring, evaluating, and supporting the organization’s executive director or CEO. In non-profits without paid staff, the board is responsible for the day-to-day operational activities needed to execute on the organization’s strategic plan.
Unfortunately, non-profit board development efforts often fail to consider the types of board members the organization needs to successfully satisfy these two responsibilities. Sometimes, board members are selected because they know current board members. Other times, the board considers some needs, like fundraising, but misses other important skills required for success.
As your board (or nominating committee or governance committee) begins its next selection process, consider the following questions:
Do we have the leadership skills required to ensure healthy board governance?
Even if you have fabulous officers now, board member turnover is inevitable (and healthy). Your board should have at least a few solid leaders who are being groomed for each leadership role. These leaders must have enough experience on non-profit boards that they understand the fundamentals of governance.
The Board Chair (or President) role is arguably the most important to consider. You need at least two people who could step into that position if needed. Look for experienced board members who have led organizations, teams or initiatives, and have experience managing people. Ensure they have the time and interest to perform well in the position, and have high levels of emotional intelligence. Finally, make sure they can effectively represent the board and the organization to the public.
Beyond the board officers, every board member should have the capacity to think critically and ask insightful questions about the topics you discuss. Each board member must also be self-confident enough to stand in opposition when they have a concern. Clearly, all board members must have a strong ethical foundation. Finally, every board member should understand the basics of board governance. If your board includes primarily individuals without board experience, your on-boarding process for new board members should include board governance training.
What skills or competencies does our CEO need in order to support his/her work?
Many non-profit board development processes focus on fundraising capacity when considering new board members. This isn’t a surprise. After all, for most non-profits, bringing in contributions is key to success. However, focusing exclusively on a board member’s ability to write a big check or bring in big donors means that the board misses the opportunity to bring in critical, and valuable, skills the CEO needs to support his or her work.
Take for example a small human services organization with just three staff members: the executive director, an administrative coordinator, and a development professional. While fundraising is critical, this executive director may need advice on financial management, contract negotiation, communications, human resource management, or other topics in which s/he doesn’t have deep personal experience. The board is the first place this person should be able to turn for counsel. If the board has no one with appropriate expertise, a committee member or other volunteer might be able to help. Otherwise, the organization will end up hiring professional advisors or risk making costly mistakes.
For the board of an all-volunteer organization, such as a parent-teacher association or a Little League organization, ensuring that your board has a well-rounded experience set is even more important. In these situations, the board chair often fills the role of the executive director. His or her board should include the skills s/he needs to be successful.
Of course, none of this means that fundraising capacity shouldn’t be considered. In fact, some level of fund development should be expected of all board members. The key is to make the expectation reasonable for all board members, and to recognize the different types of contributions board members can make to the organization.
What challenges or strategic initiatives will our organization be facing in the next few years?
If you will be undertaking a strategic planning process, which generally occurs every three to five years, your non-profit board development work should ensure you have the expertise required to be successful. You need leaders who are critical thinkers, visionaries, and exceptional planners. While a strategic planning committee or task force can, and indeed should, include non-board members as well as board members, strategic planning is the board’s primary responsibility. Leadership and key contributions must come from within the board.
If you aren’t working on a strategic plan, you should consider the initiatives or challenges you do anticipate facing. For example, if you have looming regulatory issues to address, invite a public affairs expert to join your board. If you are planning to a reorganization, consider an attorney, a human resource professional, and/or a CPA.
Does our board include a diversity of experiences, backgrounds and perspectives?
Despite an abundance of research demonstrating the value of diversity on non-profit boards, many boards are very homogeneous. This can be true even when the board has significant gender and ethnic diversity.
I sometimes hear board members explain that the population they serve, or the type of board member they attract, is likely to be similar to the others on their board. For example, the bylaws of the Washington Society of CPAs require that all board members except two be CPAs. This certainly limits the professional diversity they will attract!
However, even with these types of constraints, the board need not, and should not, be homogeneous. The governance committee makes a concerted effort to make sure the board includes qualified leaders from different size organizations, in different fields, who belong to different age segments within the population, and who represent different ethnicities, genders, and gender identities. While the board consists predominately of CPAs, it is remarkably diverse in its makeup.
For each organization, what constitutes diversity may be slightly different. Your non-profit board development work should consider the demographic makeup of the population you serve. At the same time, remember that diversity of opinion, experience and skills are also important. In addition, every person you invite to your board must be a strong contributor.
Building diversity into your non-profit board development takes more time and effort than adding people who look, act and think like you do. However, the investment you make in recruiting will generate a handsome return relative to its ability to satisfy its two core responsibilities: strategic direction and executive oversight.
What did I miss?
As your board considers adding new members, what questions do you consider? Please add them to the comment section in my blog!
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