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June 26, 2022
Essentials for Building an Effective Nonprofit Board
By C. Forbes Sargent III, Esq.

C Forbes Sargent III
C. Forbes Sargent
Since board composition profoundly influences the nonprofit it guides, it’s essential that board members think strategically and bring a diversity of skills, perspectives, and experiences, as doing so will enable the nonprofit to succeed in good times and bad.

Here are five factors to keep in mind to build an effective nonprofit board:

1. Experience
Having at least one or two board members who have served on a nonprofit board is key. They help provide guidance as to how meetings should be run, how other boards deal with issues, and often provide a good balance to a board. Although it is not necessary for board members to have prior experience as business leaders, they should have good business sense and be able to translate the organization’s long-range vision into a practical plan.

If the board is comprised of thoughtful, well-meaning supporters who lack the ability to lead and think strategically, the nonprofit will likely not achieve its goals.

2. Enthusiasm/Passion
Board members need to be enthusiastic about their role and passionate about the nonprofit’s mission, as that helps to energize fellow board members and others when they serve as ambassadors for the nonprofit. When all board members actively participate in meetings, charitable events, and fundraisers, others are encouraged to do the same, and this can have a significant impact on how the organization is viewed by the public and donors.

In short, board member passion and enthusiasm helps drive successful fundraising and engage the community.

3. Diversity
A nonprofit is most effective when it draws from a diverse group in selecting board members. First, the diversity should include making sure the board reflects a broad base of the constituents it serves. A board with diverse racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds helps give the board different perspectives on issues. Second, the board members should have diverse professional backgrounds, and should include members of the legal and business community, as well as those with financial, accounting, and marketing backgrounds.

Board members should also include supporters and constituents of a cause, so that their views get heard as well. If the board does not have leadership that reflects those served by the organization, then the nonprofit runs the risk that key constituents—volunteers, donors, partners, and communities— may feel disconnected from the cause.

4. Training
Most boards do not have any training and often end up muddling through meetings. It is important to either have experienced leaders or get training for board members. All board members should also have copies of the nonprofit governing documents, mission statement, strategic plan, and the Attorney General’s Guide for Board Members of Charitable Organizations.

Board members need to know what is expected of them, as well as what they can do as board members. Retreats can also be beneficial for reflecting on the nonprofit’s goals and adopting a strategic plan. Today, many nonprofits have limited economic resources, and taking the time to focus on mission priorities during a retreat can be time well spent. A clear agenda is needed and an outside facilitator may be worth considering. Retreat agenda items could include: staff and volunteer roles; financial management; policy making; fundraising; strategic planning; and board self-assessment. Ultimately, a well-planned retreat can help build comradery and consensus among board members and help them prioritize short-term initiatives and effectively plan for the future.

5. Recognition
Many nonprofits too often forget that to keep volunteers engaged and retain them, they need to recognize them. A study conducted by the American Cancer Society’s New England Division revealed that recognition and the occasional small token of appreciation can go a long way to assist in retaining board members. The recognition can be formal or informal. For example, the New England Division holds annual Volunteer Values Awards that formally recognize and honor those area volunteers whose service in the fight against cancer most exemplifies the organization’s values. On the informal side, one board provided a hanging basket of flowers to its officers at each annual meeting in June as a thank-you. That gesture meant a lot to the board members for minimal expense.

Equally important is strong nonprofit leadership. Although the executive director is hired by and subordinate to the board, effective EDs provide strategic guidance to board members, and model the enthusiasm and passion that makes for effective board members. In a small nonprofit, especially, it is up to the ED to serve as the face and voice of the organization and motivate board members to work as a team to advance the nonprofit’s mission.

Nonprofits that follow the five guidelines outlined above not only are better able to attract and retain qualified board members, but also are able to be more effective as a result.

C. Forbes Sargent III, a partner at Sherin and Lodgen LLP in Boston and former director of several nonprofit boards, has served as fundraising chair of the American Cancer Society Massachusetts Division. Email him at or call 617-646-2000.
June 2015
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