All nonprofit organizations need a governing board for practical, ethical and legal reasons – that’s a given. But these days, a strong, smoothly functioning board is more important than ever, particularly as many organizations in Detroit and beyond continue to struggle with the pandemic and economic uncertainty.
It takes a certain mix of people, planning, passion and perspiration to create a sustainable, thriving organization, and one of the key components is a solid founding board. In my 25+ years of nonprofit experience, I’ve found the most successful founding boards possess several common traits: vision, fortitude, leadership, commitment and passion for the mission. With these key ingredients, a founding board sets the stage for a sustainable, mission-driven organization. Without them, a nonprofit will likely lose its way. Here is more detail on each of these critical characteristics.
Setting up a successful nonprofit requires a clear vision and a leader or leaders willing to contribute sweat equity and patience to structure and establish the organization. This entails drafting and filing legal documents to appropriate jurisdictions for tax-exempt status and possible incorporation to create the not-for-profit entity. During this process, the founders need to settle on a vision that establishes ambitious long-term direction and goals.
Braving the challenges and never-ending application questions requires experienced lawyers with successful track records. Once all approvals have been received (which can take months), the next hurdle is funding the agency. Will dollars come from public or private sources or both? From where will seed money come to fund the operations and pay for staff? The founders must have plans for procuring these resources in short order or no work will manifest. Once the entity is up and running, the ongoing challenges and uncertainties of sustainability, future funding, staffing, how to remain relevant and the ability to pivot (in the event of a pandemic, for example) require continuous examination.
An organization’s founders – normally a small group assembled by someone with the initial vision who gathers like-minded family, friends or colleagues – should be well-respected influencers of integrity and good character who are known in the community. They must be willing to commit personal time and resources and attract key stakeholders and financial resources to create a strong foundation. Founders must have the expertise to envision the end goal and the team that will ultimately carry out the vision. They are responsible for communicating a fundraising and sustainability plan, building relationships, identifying advocates, considering resources needed for daily operations and attracting exceptional talent.
This initial board serves as a working board until the organization is settled and financially stable enough to hire staff. Then and only then, the founding board can shift its focus to governing and oversight, its sole responsibility. Size matters. Board size should be commensurate with the size of the operation. A small nonprofit does not need 30 board members. Boards must be managed. Founders should stay involved for as long as possible to ensure their vision comes to fruition and ruling majorities do not make unwanted modifications.
Albeit an overused word, commitment and its implications are important. Founding board members often have a personal connection to the organization’s work. Their reasons for establishing the organization are most likely tied to some personal or life-changing experience. It’s important they remain committed to see the vision take flight. No one gets to abandon the dream. All too often, disengaged boards leave the heavy lifting to the hired leadership and staff, and with inevitable fluctuating resources and capacity challenges, this can mean the slow death of an organization.
If there’s passion, the preceding ingredients will fall into place. Without it, the new organization will falter. Founders with passion show excitement with each step of progress. When founders generously provide personal resources, such as endowments, resource investments and volunteering of time, they help initiate growth. Those without passion become disengaged, unplugged and non-supportive. Watch out for politics and self-imposed strategies for personal agendas that may seep into the organization – it’s a recipe for disaster.
Strong Boards Help Nonprofits Face Many Challenges
Thriving nonprofits start with a strong foundation – a clear vision, fortitude, strong leadership, commitment and passion for the mission.
When nonprofits fail, it’s typically due to poor planning, unrealistic expectations and leadership issues. In these cases, boards lose sight of the mission, become disengaged and do not adapt to change. And a host of challenges don’t make it any easier. Predictions for 2023 include declining donations, ongoing inflation, food and housing hardships for families, talent gaps, and a need for diversity, equity and inclusion. Community involvement and support will be more important than ever. Let’s take good care of and support our precious nonprofits serving the citizens of Detroit. I remain passionate and optimistic. I hope you are too.