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October 22, 2020
Path to Better Nonprofit Board Performance Is Tied to Four Key Areas
By Sam Frank

Sam Frank
Sam Frank
Governing a nonprofit sustainably is complex, and requires knowledge, judgment, skills and leadership. While some nonprofits have effective boards that perform well, and therefore advance the mission of the organization, many fail to use their boards wisely.

With a modest amount of effort in the following four interrelated areas nonprofits could do much better:

Success and sustainability require a set of skills and resources that match the board’s responsibilities.

The cycle begins with recruitment of new members. The board should identify the skills and characteristics the board requires, and fill seats with those qualities in mind. Maintaining a balance of the needed characteristics requires planning and relationship building. Service on a board committee offers the opportunity for mutual assessment.

Many organizations simply introduce new members and get on with business. He or she then spends several meetings trying to get a sense of how the board and the organization work. A better approach is a well-crafted orientation process, and review of a board manual.

Effective boards don’t come together just to hear committee reports and take votes. They need to have discussions about the organization’s mission and situation, and about governance. By learning together about their organization and how best to exert their role within it, they develop their ability to serve the mission and advance the vision of the organization #147; and to question it productively.

A valuable tool for board development is the annual self-assessment. The board can use a self-assessment not only to identify areas needing improvement, but also to generate reflection and discussion about all areas of responsibility.

Some organizations have trustees who serve for decades. Their institutional knowledge and history can be valuable. However, new ideas are often critical to the sustainability of an organization, and a stagnant membership—not to mention leadership—over long periods can drag an organization down. A clear policy for reappointment and retirement can be an important asset.

No one set of processes or one structure works for all boards. However many boards have too many committees and too few written policies and procedures to sustain and focus governance.

A good rule for standing committees is to set up only those that are absolutely necessary. On a small board most work can be done as a group, with preparatory work done by staff or individual trustees. All trustees have fiduciary responsibility; the less fractured the knowledge the better. A finance committee and a committee on trustees (or governance or nominating committee) are generally needed to attend properly to essential responsibilities. The committee on trustees serves as an independent entity from the officers, nominating candidates for the boards and officer positions, as well as overseeing board [professional] development programs. If you need other committees, it’s best to draw a good percentage of members from outside the board (see comments on recruitment, above).

A written record of decisions and ways of doing things can make the board’s work much easier over time. When these are collected in an evolving board manual, the board will be working from precedent and consensus, and new trustees will be able to contribute from the outset.

Board meetings should focus on meaningful discussions of important issues. A meeting packet with an agenda, reports, other timely information, and background for issues to be discussed can make meetings much more productive. Using a consent agenda, the board can eliminate the passive listening that is unnecessary and frustrating to the busy trustees who have made the time to attend. The bulk of the meeting can be devoted to a discussion of a major strategic issue facing the organization.

A board retreat—even if only a half day perhaps once a year—offers an opportunity to break out of the routine and discuss important issues at some length. If provision is made for informal social interaction, trustees can to get to know each other more fully and enable them to communicate more easily and productively.

There is no one right size for a board. The smaller the group, the easier it is to have a productive discussion. Some organizations can cover the range of skills and tasks needed with 10 or fewer trustees; others find that at 20 to 25 they can still hold discussions, but they have a large enough group for representation of a range of experiences and for fundraising.

The ability of a board to further the mission of its organization often comes down to leadership. The importance of developing future leaders cannot be overstressed.

Fiduciary Issues
The role of a board can be distilled to five basic responsibilities: financial oversight, hiring and assessing the chief executive, strategic planning, fundraising, and self-perpetuation. The better these responsibilities are understood, the more sustainable the organization.

Sam Frank, founder of Synthesis Partnership and founding director of Nonprofit Webinars, advises and trains nonprofits in strategy, planning, and organizational development and change. Call him at 617-969-1881 or email to
September 2013
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