Populating your Board of Directors I

22 04 2009

 What should your board members be able to do?

A lot of nonprofit organizations don’t appear to systematically consider who should be on their boards and how to go about getting them. Since entire workshops are conducted on this topic, I started to write an overview. It still turned into a longer post than I anticipated, so here’s Part I. “What should your prospective board members be able to do?”  More in subsequent posts!

How do you populate your board of directors? There’s always the old girls’ (or old boys’) network. That’s worked in the past, or at least you were comfortable with the people you brought on. It’s hard to argue with past success.

But I’m going to argue anyway.  

Classic wisdom says that seeking new board members is a case of looking for the 3 Ts: Time, Talent and Treasure, or the 3Ws: Work, Wisdom and Wealth. Each board member should have at least 2 of the 3, and the board mix should have all three well represented. It is true, many boards do a good job of looking for those three characteristics as they seek new directors among their friends.

However, to really have an effective board, you need a more systematic approach. Fundamentally, you need to find people who understand and care about the mission. But beyond that, they also need to understand and fulfill the major roles of a nonprofit board of directors: Direction, Policy, Oversight and Fundraising.

In terms of Direction, you need forward looking people who can think top level, in order to direct the organization to fulfilling its mission in the future. Sure, there are people who have been with the organization since it began 40 years ago, and having historical perspective is helpful. But understand that the world changes and your organization will also change. That glorious past is prologue…what was, isn’t necessarily what should be now or in the future. Your prospective directors need the ability to understand where you are now and work together to provide direction for the future.

Setting Policy is the second aspect of board responsibilities. The Executive Director is hired to be the Chief Executive Officer. It is the board that sets the policies that the ED executes. What should be the policy on security, on personnel, on finances, on client care, on community relations? Your prospective directors should include people with a wide variety of experience in all the different areas of operation, in order to set sensible policies for execution, and be in-house resources to the ED for setting guidelines.

Concurrent with setting Policy is Oversight. Once you set Policy and hire the Executive Director, the board must make sure that those policies are being executed properly. Just like commercial corporations such as Enron, Bank of America, and others of their ilk, the boards of directors of nonprofits organizations are enjoined to oversee their operations, and make sure that their policies are properly enforced. There is a reason nonprofit boards need Directors & Officers insurance – the Directors and Officers are ultimately responsible for the operations of the nonprofit. As with setting Policy, prospective directors should include people with experience in all the different areas of operation, so they can provide proper Oversight of each area.

Now we come to Fundraising. Raising funds is paramount to a nonprofit organization. In fact, when you ask some people what the role of a nonprofit board is, many will say, “Fundraising,” and stop there. No matter how much good will your directors have towards your mission, unless you have the dollars available to execute that mission, you will fold. While prospective directors may have deep pockets themselves, they cannot and should not be asked to carry the entire burden on their backs.  This means that as you seek new directors, you must find those who understand their roles as chief cheerleaders and fundraisers for your mission.

Contemplating your current board of directors, consider whether each member understands each of these roles, and consciously accepts them. Whether you need to replace directors or fill vacancies, the next step is finding new directors who can fulfill these roles. Broadening your search to get the best possible talent pool means thinking strategically. How do you determine which skills you need on your board? How do you find the people who have these skills? How do you entice them to make your organization a priority?  That’s  fodder for another post

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2 responses

27 04 2009
Julia McMichael

Not only experts in their field, but people who can connect with stakeholders, donors and the community at large. I consult with many organizations who fill their boards with “experts” who then focus on programs over mission and oversight. I have a checklist of organizational and outreach talents which are indispensable for any organization.

27 04 2009
susandetwiler

That’s an excellent point, Julia. That’s why this is a series … your comments enrich the discussion. The next post talks about having a mix of talents on board, and the one that will be posted later this week talks about going outside the usual suspects — how to reach beyond the old girls’ network. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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