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October 22, 2020
Board Roles to Board Goals
By Jay W. Vogt

Jay Vogt
Many nonprofit board members and executive directors share two common complaints about their boards. They say: 1) We’re not as focused on the right things — namely governance — as we should be; and 2) We’re not as productive as we could be.

I’ve found that two simple ideas consistently turn this situation around — board roles and board goals. The two are linked. One drives the other, and their output is an annual work plan of board goals that both focuses and ensures board success.

Here’s how it works. Ask any board what the roles of a board are, and they generally give you the same answers. Most will say boards:
  1. Set mission, strategic goals, and policy
  2. Set and approve budgets
  3. Raise funds and provide resources
  4. Hire, support, and fire the executive director
  5. Represent the organization to the public
  6. Develop themselves through recruitment, orientation, and training

These governance roles are widely understood. If not, I share one of the many lists of board governance roles given in articles and books (such as The Nonprofit Organization by Thomas Wolfe). So, with all this insight, why do so many boards focus on programs, operations, and other things on which they mostly shouldn’t? Maybe it’s because they understand and enjoy those things, whereas they don’t understand or enjoy their governance roles as much (think evaluating the executive, or asking for money). How can we turn this around?

The answer is board goals. After a board has brainstormed, and refined, a half dozen essential board governance roles, it’s easy to ask: “So how are we doing?” I skip the fancy board assessments, and just ask two simple questions:
  1. What’s working in this area? and
  2. What needs improvement?

The answers can even be generated in multiple small groups, simultaneously, if you don’t have much time.

The answers to the first question give you your baseline, and the answers to the second give you your goals. One board appreciated that they support their executive well, but admitted that they hadn’t given her an evaluation in over three years. One board noticed that they attracted good talent through their nomination process, but then failed to orient and train the newcomers. Another noted that board members regularly gave donations, but the board itself had never set a goal for participation and giving. So each set goals for the coming year to maintain their governance strengths, and extend them in some meaningful way.

What emerges from this conversation is a set of board goals driven by board roles. Do these things and, by definition, your board is doing the right things. Who makes it happen? Look again at the six roles that most boards typically mention and you’ll notice that each lends itself to a committee.
  1. Strategic planning
  2. Finance
  3. Development
  4. Personnel
  5. External relations
  6. Board development

At this point most boards see what committees they need (i.e. any committees that help them fulfill their governance roles), and what their work plan for the year should be. We can have most of this conversation in two hours - the length of most board meetings - and delegate the follow-up work to committee chairs. The charge: refine the goals into the committee’s contribution to an annual board work plan, with tasks, accountabilities, and deadlines.

The “board roles to board goals” conversation is a great one to have when a new president assumes office. The result maps out the new leader’s agenda for the year, and ensures that the board will be doing the right things, and getting them done.

Jay W. Vogt has been a consultant to nonprofit organizations in Massachusetts for over twenty-five years and can be reached at.
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