By Matt Young
“Nonprofits embody the best spirit and values of our nation. They help millions of individuals and families daily. They protect, feed, heal, shelter, educate, and nurture our bodies and spirits. Nonprofits also give shape to our boldest dreams, highest ideals, and noblest causes. They turn our beliefs into action – as promoters of democracy, champions of the common good, incubators of innovation, laboratories of leadership, protectors of taxpayers, responders in times of trouble, stimulators of the economy, and weavers of community fabric.” — National Council of Nonprofits
The importance of not-for-profit organizations cannot be understated—they are the life-blood of our community. And the most successful not-for-profit organizations have one thing in common—effective boards of directors. Effective boards ensure that the organization stays focused on its mission, manages its funds effectively, and complies with the ever-changing legal and regulatory environment. Selecting the right people to serve on your organization’s board is critical to its success.
As you move forward in your recruitment efforts, these five priorities can help you build an effective board:
1. Commitment to the Mission.
Boards establish and oversee the mission of their organizations. Boards develop and adopt policies and procedures to help management and staff achieve that mission. Effective board members care deeply about, and “buy in” to, the organization’s mission. If they do not, they will not bring much value.
2. Understanding the Role of Board Members.
Often, board members become too involved in the day-to-day operations of their organizations. This is especially the case with smaller organizations. That is not their role. Their role is governance, not management. Governance requires establishing the mission, policies and programs, while management implements them with accountability to the board. Board members who do not understand this distinction can create tension for staff, confusion about how decisions are made, and potentially liabilities that would not otherwise exist.
Individuals, by nature, possess different skills. Some people are focused on execution, while others are visionaries. A board tilted with too many of either could cause your organization to struggle to find its direction. For example, a board with too many execution-minded individuals may have difficulty formulating ideas and strategies, while a board with too many visionaries may lack focus and attention to detail. Striking the right balance is key.
4. Complementing Competencies.
When selecting members, the organization must consider each individual’s qualifications as well as the board’s overall composition. Effective boards have members who possess business and organizational competencies.
Many organizations can lose sight of the business principles that are necessary to accomplish their mission. Having board members who understand these principles is important. This may include having board members with specific professional skills, such as legal, financial or human resources expertise.
Effective boards also have members who understand the needs of the people served by the organization as well as the resources that are required to provide for those needs. For example, an organization that provides services to seniors might invite one or more senior citizens to serve on the board. And it may also be important that the board reflect the social and cultural diversity of the community or organization itself.
5. Clear Expectations.
Board service requires a serious time commitment. Board members must be willing to prepare for and attend board and committee meetings. They must also follow through on assignments and potentially recruit future board members. Board members are also often requested to volunteer at events held in the community. It is important to select individuals who are willing to meet and exceed the required time commitments.
It is also important to clearly define the fundraising expectations. In the past, not-for-profit board members were rarely asked to help with fundraising. Now, more organizations are requiring “give” or “get” amounts from each of their board members. One reason is that grant makers want to make sure the organizations they choose to fund have boards that are committed to their missions, and the board members’ fundraising efforts demonstrate that commitment.
Finally, be clear to prospective board members of their fiduciary obligations to the organization—the duty of care, the duty of loyalty, and the duty of obedience. These duties are the bedrock upon which all not-for-profit organizations exist, and all board members must be committed to meet their fiduciary obligations to the organization.
Ultimately, having the right people leading your organization is the best step toward fulfilling your mission successfully.
Young, a member of Bond Schoeneck & King, regularly deals with nonprofit governance and compliance matters.