ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

Friday, October 28, 2011 - 8:54am

posted by
William A. Brown, Ph.D.,
Associate Professor
Texas A&M University

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice. We welcome your comments and feedback.

Nonprofit boards have a wide array of functions and responsibilities, which begs the question, which are the most important? What functions are critical for success? In this study, Dr. Chao Guo and I researched what nonprofit executives describe as the most important roles of the board.[1] Understanding what executives prioritize helps board members engage in practices that can help their organization succeed.

We surveyed 121 community foundation executives from across the United States. These individuals provided almost 400 comments, which were organized into 13 roles. This report summarizes the top seven activities that executives need from their board members.

Most Important Roles of the Board



Percentage of Respondents*


Fund Development



Strategy and planning



Financial oversight



Public relations



Board member vitality



Policy oversight



Relationship to executive


*Percentages total more than 100 because respondents discussed more than one important role

Fund Development

  • Fund development involves facilitating and negotiating optimal relationships that support the growth of assets.
  • Executives believe that board members are useful in “opening doors” and identifying wealthy individuals who may be interested in working with the organization.
  • Executives of small-sized organizations were more likely to discuss this role, as compared to larger organizations.

Strategy and Planning

  • This is described as the board’s role in helping to set the direction for the organization.
  • This emphasizes the fact that the board should engage in creating strategy, not only watch over strategic decisions that are being made by staff members.

Financial Oversight

  • Financial oversight includes developing and monitoring budgets and investments.
  • Organizations where the executives held more power, measured by longer tenure, were less likely to mention financial monitoring activities.

Public Relations

  • Executives stated that they would like their board members to act as ambassadors for the organizations — increasing their visibility and legitimacy in the community.
  • Executives from larger, statewide organizations were more likely to specify this as an important role.

Board Member Vitality

  • This refers to the level of commitment and engagement provided by the board. The board needs to be highly capable and informed about the key constituents and the community.
  • Executives with moderately sized boards were more likely to talk about the need for more engagement by board members.

Policy Oversight

  • Policy oversight refers to the control function of the board, to provide guidance and oversight for the organization.
  • Executives in increasingly complex operating contexts were more likely to seek the board’s role in policy oversight.

Relationship to Executive

  • Executives appreciated the regular and informal guidance provided by board members about their own performance. This can be conducted through formal and informal evaluations.
  • Executives from local organizations were more likely to prioritize about this role.

Key Points

Ultimately, executives look to their board to help them gain access to resources, maintain legitimacy, and improve public awareness of their organization, while providing active oversight and guidance. This is a tall order, and many executives believed the board was only modestly successful in these areas. Executives often lamented that board members needed to assume more “leadership” for the organization and become more “engaged” in their responsibilities.

It is difficult for volunteer board members to assume these responsibilities, and yet when boards work as partners with staff, the organization and the community benefit. We also found that institutional and organizational forces help explain tendencies of executives to prioritize different roles, and consequently, it is important to consider the priorities for each organization when determining how the board can be most beneficial.

William A. Brown is an associate professor in the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University. His research focuses on nonprofit governance, strategy, and organizational effectiveness.

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^ [1] William A. Brown and Chao Guo. "Exploring the Key Roles for Nonprofit Boards." Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. Volume 39, pages 536-546, 2010.


Really great information! Am doing work with several boards right now and this research is so relevant! Thank you, Will Brown, for providing us with more insight to this very compelling subject.

These are great points and it would be well for boards to focus more on these. With most board members selected out of the community, generally with little or no board experience, who trains boards to do the tasks they need to do? Who teaches them their fiduciary responsibilities?
Jerad Hunsaker ASU Student

This is very good research and information! I agree with many of your points especially how the board should engage in creating strategy and be useful in the non-profit organization. Many times board members are not active in the non-profits and just there to fund projects. The seven roles for the board of directors is vital in making the organization successful. I think that depending on how large and complex the organization is decides how active the board of director’s role is. I agree with the point that it is difficult for volunteer board members to assume these seven roles unless the organization works as a team.

This is a great article. I have observed some boards struggling with what their role actually is and I think this article along with the research would be a great guide.

One thing I have noticed is that some nonprofit boards do not emphasize the importance of Boards raising money for the organization.

Instead the members would rather perform minor duties and avoid fund raising altogether as well as avoid establishing networks with promising supporters.

Also some boards do not actually possess adequate training in order not to blur the lines that separate board members from volunteers and paid staff. Instead they would rather micro manage rather than being out in the public raising awareness of the organizations mission.

There are some board members that sometimes ride on ego and the title of “board member” rather than get out and mix with the community and make some real tracks from foot work on behalf of the organization.

I think this article would really help motivate some board members to reassess their roles.

The information provided was very interesting . The points that were provided really opened my perspective on non-profit organizations. The points that were talked about are useful is more ways that just for the non-profit.

I was not surprised to see that the development of funds is ranked number one on the list. These nonprofit executives are going to be desiring more money/assets, especially given the current state of the U.S. economy. I also thought Jerad brought up a good point in his comment when he asked who teaches/trains board members so that they are equipped to fulfill these roles in their respective organizations.

Justin Bennett ASU Student

Training is key, but I've also been thinking a lot about "role overload." When I talk to boards about these areas - far too often, I see eyes gloss over and folks seem to, we're not doing hardy any of this. So, I've been asking folks to prioritize - what do you need to focus on for next 6 months?

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