8 Best Practices of Non-Profit Boards
Posted October 2015
Board chairs often ask me what I recommend as the best practices of high performing boards. The list below is not exhaustive, but includes some practices that I find helpful to make boards stronger and their work more effective.
Board member job descriptions and agreements
It’s true in any field: when people know what is expected of them they are much more likely to deliver on their responsibilities. That can start even before someone’s hired—a clear job description can set the terms for someone’s employment, and can deter those who aren’t fit for the job from applying in the first place (which, sometimes, can be for the best!).
This is no less true for board members than for any employee. Board member job descriptions can include expectations regarding subjects as wide-ranging as meeting attendance and preparation, committee participation, financial giving, community outreach, event volunteering, and support of non-profit team members in fund development activity. Expectations can be uniform across the board, or vary considerably to accommodate people of different skills or means.
Depending on the organization, expectations can include functions in the “governance” arena, requiring clear levels of engagement and focus; or others, just as valuable in their own right, that are more “volunteer”-oriented, developed at the discretion of the staff. The key here is honest, clear communications, and transparent expectation-setting so that every member can see the pathway to successful participation that will move the organization forward.
Clear financial giving expectations
I highlight this particular area of board responsibility because I have seen many boards struggle with the question of financial expectations—and specifically, what kind of contributions are appropriate to require of board members individually and as a group. This is a common question for two reasons: first, because most nonprofits are cash-poor, and second, because financial contributions are easier to compare than donations of wisdom and work.
For some non-profits, having a standard give/get for every board member can work. For others, each member gives according to his or her means, and there is comfort and trust that those numbers help to meet the organization’s overall goals. But when folks start to squabble about money—or worse, stew alone—then real dysfunction can enter a board and jeopardize the group’s ability to work together across other areas.
Again, an honest and open dialogue among board members, and between board members and the board chair, is key. This can both maximize funds raised and maintain harmony around this thorny topic. If some board members are unable to give substantial sums of money, they may bring key domain expertise that could prove to be even more catalytic than a financial gift.
A few simple orientation techniques can go a long way in helping new board members feel acclimated and welcome during their first days. Here are three proven orientation tools to try:
Board buddies: A veteran board member is assigned to sit next to the new member at their first meeting or calls the new member before and after the meeting to check in.
Board member manuals: These include materials like mission and vision statements, budgets, org charts, annual reports, and marketing materials to bring the new member up to speed.
Orientation calls: It’s useful to set up calls with a class of new members to review an orientation manual and answer any questions.
Equipping board members to be valued ambassadors
Board members want to be strong advocates and storytellers, but often don’t have the tools they need to do this well. Try this: ask each of your board members to write down the one-minute elevator pitch that they use to describe your non-profit. It is very likely that these statements will be wildly different from one another, as well as from the message that you would like them to share.
To get them aligned with you and one another, create a one-minute elevator pitch for your board members, as well as alterative 3- and 5-minute pitches. Provide them with a fact sheet covering your organization’s top 10 successes. Arm them with stories of success that illustrate why your organization is effective and unique. Equip them to be great advocates for your organization.
Tools for fund development
On a related note, equip your board members, and other volunteers, to be great fundraisers. Create a simple one-pager on your organization that board members can leave behind at meetings and email to friends; a great annual report; basic letter formats to be used to follow up after fundraisers or during annual fundraising season; and a website that provides helpful and navigable information. I often hear non-profit leaders complain that their board members are not effective fundraisers—but further conversation often reveals that they have not been given the tools they need to succeed.
In the same way that non-profit leaders deserve an annual review, their boards do, too. Enabling board members to provide feedback on how the board is working (frequency and length of meetings, agenda and facilitation of meetings), who is on the board (skill deficits, suggested profiles of new members) and whether board member expectations are clear (preparation required, financial expectation) can provide healthy feedback to a board and its chair, and set the course for future decisions and actions.
It’s important to remember that different people are comfortable providing feedback in different ways. It is therefore useful to provide board members with multiple kinds of opportunities. Online surveys, targeted discussion during a board meeting, and notecards submitted at the end of the meeting are all great vehicles for gathering feedback.
Boards of non-profits are inclined to be frugal and to seek out pro bono support wherever possible. At the same time, they have a profound responsibility to mitigate organizational risk. Legal and accounting support are two critical functions worthy of proper investment. The rules for boards are too complex and the penalties too high to skimp in these areas.
Strong agendas and meeting facilitation
A well-managed meeting can be a real joy — conversation flows, everyone at the table learns new things, good questions are posed, agendas move forward. A poorly facilitated meeting is a waste of everyone’s time — some members talk too much and others not at all, items at the bottom of the agenda never come to light, and people leave feeling frustrated.
Building a clear agenda in advance, with clear goals and priorities for the meeting and realistic time frames for the discussion of all items, can provide organization and much-needed discipline for a board meeting. Strong facilitation helps move the agenda along, gives quieter members room to contribute, and keeps the more loquacious members in check. Use of a consent agenda can allow for content to be reviewed outside the room and one-way report-outs to be kept to a minimum, so that time in the room is reserved for the sharing of ideas.
Wow — you might be thinking — this is quite a long list! But think of it as a toolkit rather than a manual. Any one of these tools, used appropriately, can make a big difference for you board. Pick something that seems easy to accomplish, or feels likely to succeed with your team, and jump in. Good board dynamics, like any sort of healthy behavior, build momentum over time and start by simply taking the first step.
Below are a few resources I have found helpful when exploring board questions and best practices.
· Adler & Colvin — FAQs, publication lists, and other useful links
· Blue Avocado — Quirky but practical advice on non-profit management, as well as board sitting
· Boardsource — A rich treasure trove of interesting reports and tools for the board sitter
· Bridgespan — All sorts of publications and tools on a wide array of non-profit management topics
· CompassPoint — A non-profit management resource that includes a great tool called Nonprofit Board Basics Online
· National Council of Nonprofits — All sorts of resources on non-profit boards and governance
· Nonprofit Finance Fund — Lots of great resources with a finance and accounting bent
· An article I really like — The Dynamic Nonprofit Board by Jansen and Kilpatrick
· A book I think is terrific — Governance as Leadership by Chait, Ryan, and Taylor