A nonprofit leader’s guide to building a better board of directors
Whether you run a tiny nonprofit or a major institution, managing your board of directors can sometimes feel like an ongoing, monumental task, even if you’re fortunate enough to have excellent board members. The time spent is well worth it - board development, strategy, and management are critical to the culture and long-term success of any organization - but board relations are often chock full of misconceptions and myths that get in the way of effectiveness.
We hear a litany of complaints from leaders about their boards. Here are some:
Your organization needs to change the way it does things, but you can’t get board buy-in.
Your board says you should do X, Y, or Z but doesn’t match those ideas with additional funding or capacity
Your board members sound enthusiastic in the moment, but they don’t show up when you need them to - even to the annual fundraiser.
You have the wrong kind of engagement (often mistaken for too much engagement), where your board members don’t understand the line between organizational operations and governance
“Board management” means you telling your board what you’ll do and how you’ll do it while they nod their heads or send an occasional email with an idea.
Your board expected one thing when you were hired and seemingly another thing entirely once you were in the role
You’re pretty sure the entire organization would fall apart without you and that they have no idea. Speaking of which: they don’t know you’re hunting for a job, but you are - and you’re worried about what will happen to the org when you go.
Boards are far from perfect, not just as a group of individuals, but as a larger institution forced on nonprofits (check out Michael Bobbitt’s excellent article, Boards are Broken, So Let’s Break and Remake Them, for a real good time, and the open letter from Woolly Mammoth’s board). They are loaded with unspoken (and thus inequitable) rules, legacy practices, and white culture masquerading as “norms.” But lots of us are stuck with them for now. So, let’s figure out how to move, shake, and work to break the system.
7 Ways to Make Your Board Suck Less
1. Your board is an audience—treat them like it!
Organizations often treat boards like rich staff members when they should instead be treated like a carefully curated audience. Don’t assume they will understand your programs or be invested in your upcoming events just because they’re on the board. You need to get them as excited about your mission as any of your top funders or most loyal audience members. Start every board meeting with a testimonial from a program attendee or share an event summary or news clip that shows off your mission’s impact.
As your organization’s leader, you also need to check in with each board member individually and personally. Whether you meet monthly for coffee or just chat via email, make time to understand what they care about. What are their skills? Why did they join the board in the first place? Are they in a tough personal chapter right now? If you understand their motivations and resources, you’ll be able to engage them more mindfully and more fully with the organization. If you aren’t checking in with each member like this, you might have a few good folks with one foot out the door and you just don’t know it yet.
2. Clarify roles and expectations.
Can you quickly summarize the difference between a board of directors and an executive director? Knowing the distinction, and educating your board about it, is crucial to ensuring your board is operating effectively and not creating red tape in the way of getting your job done. When you bring on new board members, clearly lay out the expectations for their role (a one-page list is fine!), and follow that up by actually checking in on and holding them to those expectations (like in those one-on-ones). If you’re having trouble getting everyone on the same page, bring in an outside facilitator to create a formal process.
3. Make better meeting agendas.
Look at your last board meeting agenda. Is it mostly focused on report-outs? Board meetings are primarily for discussing policies or issues, making decisions, and getting some work done, not recapping information they could have read before the meeting. If you want an active board, you need to put them in an environment that invites them to actively participate and contribute - and the best place to start is in your board meetings.
4. Know your people.
Not every board member will or should show up in the same way. Some will fund, some will volunteer, some will bring 10 friends to the gala, and some will network on the organization’s behalf. All of these are useful and important contributions that should be recognized for the valuable and critical contributions they are.
When you know your people, when you really understand their interests and skills, you can cater to their strengths and apply their efforts more strategically.
A quick note about board giving: consider a board member’s full giving profile and not just their individual dollars. Count ticket purchases, introductions to folks who become fans, donors, and service providers, event attendance, and volunteer hours. When you recognize whole contributions, you show your board members that you see them as more than just check writers. When you recruit based on whole contributions, you are more likely to ditch inactive, overly opinionated check writers for engaged, networking movers and shakers who do so much more than just donate.
5. Toxic board culture can ruin everything, so change the culture.
If you’re dealing with a bunch of legacy board members who are resisting change, or a few bad apples who just aren’t invested in the organization’s mission, you may need to think big to change the culture. Add new term limits to the bylaws, or grow the board to bring new faces to the table.
Make sure you bring in new members as a cohort (like adding 3 at a time) so they have strength in numbers and can relate to each other. Prepare them for the organizational shift you’re hoping to create in part with their onboarding, and provide clear expectations. If you’re trying to change the culture, we think it’s best to be direct.
6. You may have to drop the ball.
If you have an unreasonable board that sets ridiculous expectations but refuses to provide adequate resources, you might be set up to fail. But you care about your audience, your staff, and your mission, so you keep rising way beyond the call of duty to succeed with less and less support. This is a toxic cycle that only ends if you get off the merry-go-round of over-delivering. If you’re searching for other jobs, you already know this.
We know you don’t like this advice, but we also know a lot of overworked executives and program managers who are burning out, and we’re in your corner: If your board members are constantly raising your hand for programs that aren’t on mission, or sending restricted checks for a specific program that isn’t sustainable, they’re not being supportive—they’re creating a problem. You might need to let a flashy new program one of them is excited about fail on your watch so they learn that there’s an end to the magic you’re willing and able to make. Set boundaries, create a gift acceptance policy, and be prepared to say no thank you - even if that means they walk away.
7. Get support!
This is one of our longest lists, and there’s a good reason. Board management is no joke. If the time-consuming work of board strategy and stewardship is beyond your capabilities, get help. Hire a director of development or chief of staff to take on some of the agenda planning, governance due diligence, one-on-ones, and thank you emails. Hire a facilitator who will ask questions you won’t think of (or ask the same ones you’ve already asked but are heard for the first time), notice dynamics you’ve gotten used to, and offer new resources. You don’t have to do this alone.
You may have read through this list only to find that you’ve tried all of these things, and you still have a dud of a board. If that’s true, it may be time to bring in an expert. Jackie has been in the trenches of board governance both as a nonprofit leader and as a board chair. Now she helps clients with sticky board issues ranging from meeting facilitation to complete board turnover and cultural change. Sign up for a free 30-minute consultation to see if she can help you get your board into shape.