How to Build a Nonprofit Board
If you are a small, volunteer-run organization, building a strong nonprofit board can be difficult. This article is for you.
When an organization is big and well established, it has a board-building advantage. People with lots of board experience and deep community connections are eager to join your board. It’s a compliment to them to be asked. Yes, it costs them time and money, and represents a serious commitment of expertise, but it’s still an honor.
Small organizations aren’t so lucky. Unless they have a direct and personal connection, the experienced board members who are flattered to be nominated to high profile boards won’t be interested in working on yours. An all-volunteer organization means that your board will be more time-consuming, riskier, and more work.
And yet, small, all-volunteer organizations are far more common than their large, professionally-managed counterparts. In fact, they’re the backbone of our nonprofit system. Youth sports organizations, “friends of …” organizations that support larger institutions, neighborhood associations, and parent-teacher associations are all examples of the hundreds of thousands of small nonprofits that contribute to our nation’s health.
So, how do you build a strong board if you are a small, all-volunteer nonprofit?
Understand the Board’s Roles
In larger nonprofits, the board has two basic sets of responsibilities. First, the board is responsible for hiring and overseeing the organization’s CEO or Executive Director. Second, the board is responsible for establishing strategic direction and ensuring that the organization has the governance practices in place that will allow it to reach its goals. This Boardsource article outlines the Ten Basic Responsibilities of NonProfit Boards.
Small Nonprofit Boards & Management Responsibilities
All-volunteer organizations have the same governance responsibilities. However, they also are responsible for the management responsibilities that would have been the responsibility of the CEO or Executive Director. This is where things can get complicated. Where a larger board would be reviewing and providing constructive feedback on performance, the small board must review its own performance. This makes the selection of board members even more critical. It also puts board members in awkward, even political, positions that can be uncomfortable.
Imagine, for example, an all-volunteer youth sports organization whose board includes coaches. If one of the coaches is not performing at an acceptable level, the board must provide feedback to that individual. In some cases, the board must fire that individual from his or her volunteer role. If the coach is also a board member, this can make taking action extremely difficult.
To prevent this conflict of interest, all-volunteer nonprofit boards should create performance expectations for key volunteer positions. For example, an all-volunteer baseball organization might have coaches sign a contract like this one, published on the Spiders Elite site.
The board should also create a review procedure, much like an employee review procedure, that provides an objective means of evaluating whether the volunteer “manager” is performing well in his or her position. This sample is one used by Oregon Health & Science University, but it could be adapted for use with a smaller organization. If the organization has multiple managers, not all of whom are on the board, use the evaluation process uniformly across all volunteer managers.
With both expectations and an evaluation process established in advance, the board can more effectively address the management performance of its board members.
Small Nonprofit Boards & Governance Responsibilities
Of course, the board should also evaluate its performance against governance objectives. This blog post, entitled Evaluating Board Performance, addresses both board evaluations and director evaluations and provides examples.
Identify the Needs
As you consider growing your board, consider your management and governance needs. There are some roles that every organization must have:
This person needs strong management skills and nonprofit governance knowledge. This booklet from the Support Center for Nonprofit Management and the National Center for Nonprofit Boards provides strong guidance on board responsibilities and required skills.
Like the President, this person needs a solid understanding of how nonprofits work, and the rules and regulations that apply to them. Since this person will step in if the board president is no longer available, s/he must have similar skills.
This position is one of the most critical to the organization’s health and it requires someone with either training or experience. The Treasurer must be very familiar with the organization’s federal and state tax filing requirements, how donations must be documented, and how nonprofit accounting works. These two booklets by the CPA firm Jacobson Jarvis provide some helpful information to board members who might assume this responsibility.
One of the quickest ways to run into problems with your corporate status or your exempt classification is to neglect board minutes and other documentation. This individual must have both knowledge about the legal requirements and the ability to manage them effectively.
Beyond these leadership roles, the board should consider the management responsibilities the board needs to cover. For example, if the organization hosts events, it may be appropriate to have a VP or Committee Chair for events on the board of directors. If the organization relies heavily on public donations, a VP of Development or Development Committee Chair might be important.
I recommend developing an organizational chart that would mirror one found in an organization with paid staff. Of course, it’s important to remember that these individuals are volunteers! The jobs must be right-sized to make them appealing.
As you grow, consider the diversity of the population you serve as you look for board members. Ensuring that your board reflects the audience you are targeting will make you more effective. Diversity on a board brings stronger thinking, increases creativity, and improves outcomes. For more thoughts on diversity as a board imperative, check out this blog post.
Finally, it is important to consider board size. As this Nonprofit Quarterly article notes, the board should be big enough to have the expertise and perspectives required, but small enough to allow board members to be meaningfully engaged in discussions.
Build Job Descriptions
Once you have identified the board roles needed, build job descriptions for each one. These should include the roles and responsibilities associated with the position, the skills required, and the term of office.
Here are a few examples:
- The Bridgespan Group Board Member Job Description Sample
- The Bridgespan Group Board Job Descriptions (for officers)
- Boardsource General Board Job Description
Find the Skills (and don’t compromise!)
Finding good board members takes time, but it is worth the investment in effort. Board members whose motivations, skills and experience are not well-aligned with the organization overall can be a serious liability to the organization.
Take the time to look for the right people to join your team. Remember, not everyone needs to be a board member right away! If you aren’t sure that the person will be a good fit, ask them to volunteer in another capacity, such as serving on a committee or taking on responsibility for an event or activity.
While the board recruiting process is more casual than the hiring process in a paid role, it is just as important. Interview the candidate carefully. Ask questions specific to the skills required. Talk to people who have worked with him or her in the past. Discuss the position, its responsibilities, and the expected time and financial resource commitment. Be open and honest with the candidate.
When you do find the right fit, be prepared with compelling reasons they should join your board. After all, it will be a time commitment! What’s in it for them? Will they learn new skills? Get to work with fun people? Make a difference in a young organization? Help the nonprofit reach a new goal? Make sure that your “pitch” is compelling when you invite them to volunteer as a board member.
Train your Board
Once you have the right team members, be sure they are all on the same page by providing a solid board orientation. Many small organizations bring on board members as they are identified. In this case, the orientation might be provided over coffee with the new board member and one or two board officers. If several people join at the same time, a group orientation might be more efficient.
As you outline your orientation, be sure to include:
- Your organization’s mission, vision and short-term objectives
- Their governance responsibilities as a board member
- Your bylaws
- Their management responsibilities as a member of the all-volunteer organization’s leadership team
- Your recent financial statements
- Your board meeting schedule
Here are some additional resources you may want to consult as you put together your orientation program:
- National Council of NonProfits article on board orientation
- Boardsource first article on board orientation (geared toward group sessions) and a second article with more details
- Joan Garry’s post: A Template for a Great Board Orientation (a fabulous article, and perhaps a bit ambitious for very small organizations)
Do You Have Something to Add?
Have you done something to attract great board members that has worked particularly well? Or do you have some lessons learned that you are willing to share? Please write them in the comments.
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About the Author
Heather Fitzpatrick is a volunteer board member who has served on a dozen boards of directors, and countless committees and task forces. As a management consultant, she works with boards of directors and nonprofit leadership teams to facilitate strategic planning, business planning, financial planning and marketing planning processes. She is passionate about the nonprofit sector, and writes this blog to help organizations of all sizes improve their planning processes and outcomes.