Building a Better Nonprofit Governing Board

by Jim Vella

CEO & Founder, The Vella Group
Published On: March 8, 2023Categories: Board Governance, Insights

Remember when your nonprofit got started? You probably launched your organization with a small, informal group of founders with strong passion for the mission and a very hands-on approach. This arrangement works well in the beginning, but what happens when your organization starts to grow?

If you’re expanding your service offerings, growing your staff or extending your reach, your board needs to evolve. It needs to transition to a governing role, creating formal structures, policies and plans, and overseeing the organization’s financial and legal activities.

But it doesn’t end there. Today, governing boards need to go the extra mile to be truly effective in a competitive and challenging nonprofit space. What does an effective governing board look like, and how do you get there? Here are some tips to guide you:

Strong Governing Boards Go Beyond Traditional Oversight

Strategic Thinking

A strong governing board helps an organization align programs and services with its overall strategies and mission. It helps the nonprofit develop and maintain a clear vision, including supporting leadership, developing metrics and showing a willingness to pivot when needed.

Maintaining Balance

An effective board transitions from total power to a balance of power with the organization’s executive director and staff. This involves gaining consensus on a decision-making process: who decides what, which decisions require board approval, etc. Communication is critical for success — open and honest dialogue gives both sides the information they need to get their jobs done.

Active Engagement

The most impactful governing boards go beyond traditional oversight responsibilities. They actively participate, sharing their expertise and offering value-added services. Board members promote the organization within their networks, connecting the nonprofit’s leadership with community partners and stakeholders. They also tap into their networks to connect the organization to funding sources and potential partnerships.

Specialized Skills

A successful governing board offers skill sets and relevant industry experience that align with the needs of the organization. If a nonprofit is building a new facility, for example, the board may need members with real estate, banking and legal expertise. If the organization is hiring more staff, having a board member with HR expertise is an asset in developing recruiting, compensation and benefits practices.

Transitioning Your Governing Board to the Next Level

Culture Matters

The foundation of an effective board is a strong mission-driven culture. A board’s actions must align with the organization’s strategies and mission. Just as important, the board needs to foster an environment of diversity, trust, respect, integrity, healthy debate and active participation. If you’re considering new board members, make sure candidates have personality traits, values and a style of work that fit with your defined culture.

Skills Assessment

As your organization evolves, look at the goals you’ve set and figure out the skill sets needed to accomplish each one. Next, look at your existing board and determine the qualities each member brings to the table. If gaps emerge, factor these missing skills into a targeted search for candidates.

Be Mindful of Size

The optimal size for a governing board depends not only on the skills required, but also the scope and budget of your organization and the number of paid staff. In general, small nonprofits typically operate with 3 to 5 members who act as more of a hands-on working board. Governing boards for medium and larger nonprofits typically run with 10 to 20 members who fill key officer positions and committee roles. These numbers aren’t set in stone, but beware of having too many board members, which can lead to power struggles, tension and passivity. Term limits and a process for when and how to offboard members are critical to maintain effectiveness and engagement, and continue to add fresh perspectives to the organization.

Board Survey

Concerned that your board has lost its momentum and can’t gain any traction? It may be time to conduct a survey of all directors or a board self assessment. Questions should give members the opportunity to rank organizational priorities and voice their opinions about your nonprofit’s direction and how best to achieve stated goals. By maintaining open dialogue with each member, you have a good shot at getting to the root of the problem and building an action plan to move forward.

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