Originally published in Philanthropy Journal
For nonprofits, an engaged board is crucial for effective governance, fundraising and mission alignment. Despite its’ importance, this year’s GHJ Nonprofit Survey and Whitepaper, which annually interviews nonprofit leaders from the LA area on important industry trends, revealed that just 20 percent of respondents said their board’s focus on engagement was top priority.
In taking a closer look at engaging the board, we have identified five key areas where boards can improve:
- Recruiting and Onboarding New Board Members
- Board Rotation and Term Limits
- Assessing the Board
It is important to recruit those who believe in the mission and not those who are looking for networking opportunities or who are seeking a board position to fulfill a job requirement. It is equally important to communicate clearly expectations regarding service and financial support. To do this, the Governance or Nominating Committee must develop a clear board member job description. The board member description should include the board structure and size, frequency of meetings, term limit information and expectations regarding participation on committees, attendance at events and the annual give-get.
Successful board members start with successful onboarding, but just 12 percent of the survey respondents said they have mandatory new board member training. New board members should be engaged with the mission and fellow members from the start. It is equally important to determine the individual skills and talents of the each board member and put them to work on committees. This ensures that members are utilized in the most strategic and effective way possible.
2. Educating the Board
Whether a board member is new or has tenure on the board, they need to fully understand the organization’s programs and mission. Since programs evolve, there should be regular checkpoints where the entire board gets information needed to be effective in their roles. This could be allotted time at regular board meetings or it could be time and part of a board retreat. During these checkpoints, the board should be reminded of why their role is important, as well as given the tools for fundraising, raising community awareness and attracting volunteers.
3. Putting the Board to Work
The CEO and Board Chair should meet before board meetings to plan the agenda, and the agenda should be shared in advance with the Executive Committee of the board. This step allows members of the Executive Committee to weigh in on topics of interest to the board. Meeting materials should be distributed prior, as well, with sufficient time given for review. Questions and discussions should be encouraged during board meetings as enquiry, reflection and respectful disagreement are all healthy and keep board members interested and focused on their governance responsibilities.
Board turnover is a hard topic for most nonprofits, and few do it well. The case for having term limits or board rotation is that fresh perspectives should always be added as an organization grows and evolves. Unfortunately, just 30 percent of GHJ’ Nonprofit Survey respondents said they had a formal succession plan for board members at their organizations. Different skills and talents will be needed at different points in a nonprofit’s lifecycle, so enforcing term limits benefits the organization in the long run.
The Governance Committee should conduct an annual board assessment to identify the level of board engagement, board development opportunities and areas for performance improvement. Findings should be discussed at the annual board retreat as part of the board’s commitment to accountability.
Nonprofit boards are being challenged in new ways, and board governance is more important today than ever. Avoiding complacency, focusing on mission and striving for innovation are key strategies for successful boards. Addressing the key areas highlighted above can put your board on the path to success.