Building Better Boards in 10 Easy Steps
"Your board is your destiny." You could have heard a pin drop when this simple, yet elegant answer was given to an apparently complex question.
When fundraising legend Jerry Panas was the featured presenter to a small group of nonprofit CEO's and board chairs in Phoenix, those in the room hung on his every word. I mean, why wouldn't they? Mr. Panas has raised something like a gazillion dollars through the years. In fact, with over thirty years of proven fundraising success, he certainly knows a little something about that complex question: "So, what is the board's role in fundraising?"
Your board is your destiny.
It's brilliant. It's brilliant because it's so true. It's also brilliant because it's compelling. Whatever your past accomplishments, whatever your organizational journey, be assured that the makeup of the group sitting around your board table is a direct precursor to where your organization will end up — for better or for worse.
Your board is your destiny.
It's shocking to me how many nonprofit boards are unaware of the power and importance they possess. Worse, some are outright shirking their primary responsibilities, leaving all faith (and important decisions) in the hands of their CEO. I mean all due respect to the abundance of massively talented leaders in the nonprofit community. But left alone, even the most successful CEO's could be creating an unsustainable enterprise. Without broad-based community support, an abundance of boisterous stakeholders, and support from multiple consumer markets (all work that should be driven by the board), organizations with leadership models containing narrow distribution of meaningful roles do not survive over time.
Your board is your destiny.
Board development is the most important work of the nonprofit enterprise. Yet, it is largely under-valued, under-resourced, and under-appreciated for its potential. So, here it is. Developed over the past decade with broad support and inspiration from a variety of friends, trusted colleagues, and published wisdom: Board Development 101 — Building Better Boards in 10 Easy Steps:
1. Eliminate the regular meeting of the executive committee. Sure, the executive committee has its time and place. But frankly, it's overused and ends up having the conversation that the full board should be having. Likely, it's just prior to the full board meeting with a report of outcomes and decisions already made. All rubber stamped and rarely questioned. This can often be followed by the inevitable conversation at the executive committee level concerning why board members aren't more fully engaged. You do the math.
2. Initiate a board development committee. Made up of your most talented, strategic-minded board members, this will replace your nominating committee. Let's face it, most nominating committees meet once or twice a year, identify who might "know somebody," and set about to ask them to join the board. A strategic process it is not. A board development committee, on the other hand, meets year-round and is charged with not only board recruitment and selection, but also with assuring that each board member is fully equipped with the proper tools and motivation to carry out his or her responsibilities as a productive member of the board. Google this one. There is a lot on the topic.
3. Assess the board's current composition. Develop a board matrix that identifies the skills, knowledge, and resource development potential you're seeking. Be ambitious! Bring in some talent. Your mission is worthy of it, but know who you want and what you need first.
4. Draft a recruitment plan. Cultivating board prospects should be a well-organized, strategic, year-round activity. Plan for it. Remember: what gets measured, gets managed.
5. Develop a board application. Would you hire a staff member or engage a volunteer without getting some information to review first? Board membership consideration requires the same attention.
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6. Develop a board job description. See answer above. And one other thing: let's move away from the "dumbing down of time and commitment in order to persuade people to join" approach. It is a big commitment. It does take time. We do need your help and for you to be fully engaged. And, yes, we need you to raise money on behalf of the organization's important mission. The privilege of raising money is a gift. Embrace it and find others who do, too.
7. Develop a board orientation. Just as we orient new staff members or volunteers, new board members should have the same opportunity to get to know your organization from the onset of their involvement. Be thorough. Help them find a piece of the enterprise that inspires them to champion your efforts.
8. Provide a board contract or statement of understanding. I have found this to be, without exception, a welcomed tool by board members. It should clearly define board roles, responsibilities, expectations, and accountability measures expected of your members.
9. Develop a board engagement plan. Driven by the board development committee, this process will help you identify meaningful opportunities for board members to become engaged and also help you celebrate their success more often along the way.
10. Engage in self assessment. Develop a board scorecard that tracks and evaluates the progress of the board against your strategic plan. Good boards should be asking their organization to keep score. Why shouldn't they do the same in the management of their own affairs?
That's it! Ten easy steps. I know it's not rocket-science. But, surprisingly, few boards practice this kind of discipline.
Your board is your destiny. Where are you headed?