Just about everyone has had some sort of run-in with a Board that doesn’t quite meet the needs of the agency. Maybe they don’t meet regularly, or have difficulty making important decisions. Maybe they’re using their ‘Board Member’ status to forward their own agendas in the community. For whatever the reason, having a Board that doesn’t work in the best interests of the nonprofit is extremely detrimental to the overall success and functionality of an agency.
What does a good Board do anyways?
So many people have had bad experiences with Boards that they might not know what they should be expecting. Boards should be the ‘big picture’ thinkers that guide the activities of the organization so that it remains relevant to the community it serves.
There are legal reasons for having a Board. There are usually state requirements for the size and essential functions of a Board. They also serve to hire the Executive Director (ED), and sometimes other higher-ranking employees.
The Board should ensure the morale of the organization’s employees. As part of their oversight, they should be proactive in ensuring that the agency’s policies are in-line with current trends in benefits and workplace behaviors.
A Board should build relationships with the community that your organization is located in. They are responsible for cultivating a positive image and support for your organization’s activities. Sometimes that looks like media campaigns, or fundraising events. Sometimes it’s a simple coffee lunch with another Nonprofit ED.
The Board should know what your organization does. They should always have an elevator speech ready to give out to new people that they meet. This helps to cultivate support, as well as learn more about the perception of need identified by the community. If the agency is providing a service that is needed the elevator speech will prompt that feedback.
Who should be recruited to a nonprofit Board?
Board Members should have some sort of connection to the community that they serve. It’s pointless to have a Board of people who live hours away and have no true connection to the work that you do. If they aren’t local, how and when are they going to advocate for you in your community?
They should representative of your client base. That means a diverse Board. If you primarily serve Chinese Immigrants, then you should have a person on your Board who has a relationship with that community.
They should have the time to commit to the Board. Being a Board Member comes with a lot of responsibility. They have to be able to come to regular meetings and special events. They should have the time and willingness to actively talk to other people and organizations about the work that the agency is doing.
They should have a skillset that is useful to you. If you have a Board filled with lawyers, it won’t be as creative or effective as a Board with: a lawyer, the Mayor’s wife, a local activist, another nonprofit ED, and a community member.
I can’t provide a specific formula for what your Board looks like. That is dependent on your community and your goals. Define what goals you want your Board to accomplish, and fill in the gaps with appropriate people.
How to change Board Member’s behavior
The worst thing you can do is to let bad Board Member behavior continue. The longer bad habits stay in place, the harder they will be to break and the longer your agency will suffer their ill-effects.
The first thing to do is to make sure that the Board knows its responsibilities. A lot of people just assume that Board Members just know what to do, especially if they’ve been on the Board for a long time. That is not always the case. Sit down with your Board and redefine the expectations of their positions. Do they know that they’re supposed to help cultivate funding? Do they know how to do that? Train your Board to work for you, just like you would with any new employee.
Put the pressure on to work effectively. Identify a few Members who are trying to manage the Board properly and work with them to get the others on board. Be annoying if you have to. Send emails or phone calls with reminders about their responsibilities. Hold more frequent meetings. Be present in their lives as often as possible.
If they aren’t working out-tell them. Sit down and have an honest discussion about their dedication to the agency and its mission. Maybe they just don’t have the buy-in to be an appropriate Board Member.
National Council of Nonprofits
The Bridgespan Group