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Super Charging Your Not-for-Profit Board for Peak Performance - Part 1

“I cannot believe our board…” Have you had a similar conversation with senior leadership colleagues lately? If your board is surprising you in all the wrong ways, I’d like to offer these tips to help ensure top performance of your board. Today, I’ll offer the first part of this two-part Perspectives.

Super Charging Your Board for Peak Performance is one of my favorite topics because Boards impact so much of your overall organization’s well being and success, including the ability to raise philanthropic support to achieve your mission. Investing time and attention to your board will net huge return!

For starters, your governing board is responsible for your organization’s fiduciary sustainability. It is essential to understand the roles - legally and ethically - your board plays since it impacts your ability to conduct your mission effectively, especially in raising philanthropic support. From my point of view, the governance committee is the most critical board committee. I used to think it was development, however, I have learned otherwise. If you are interested in learning more about the Governance Committee, please let me know.

I often hear clients and colleagues comment about their not-for-profit boards. Often, those conversations reflect something that their board members failed to do or didn’t do well. From my perspective, it is typically because the board member didn’t know or understand their responsibilities.

Let’s be clear, it is our role – professional staff - to provide support to boards from our base of knowledge and practice. We also play a significant role in developing a constructive relationship with our board that allows us to ensure board members are completely engaged.

Tips for An Effective Not-for-Profit Board

Now, here are some tips for an effective board that I hope you find helpful.

Strategic Plan for Your Organization

Primarily, it is critical that your organizations have a strategic plan, one that engages stakeholders in the process. The strategic plan should set the direction for the next five to seven years. It shouldn’t just sit on a shelf - implementing and evaluating is key to succeeding with and ensuring accountability. I am reminded of Alice in Wonderland when Alice meets the Cheshire cat, sitting in a tree. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked. ‘Where do you want to go?’ was his response. ‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered. ‘Then it doesn’t matter,” said the cat. Be sure you and all of your staff and Board are clear about where you’re going and how you plan to get there – that’s what a strategic plan is all about. Consider also developing an annual business plan, anchored by your strategic plan. It will help provide focused, manageable “action steps” for your team and Board to guide your work – bite size progress, if you will.

Thoughtful Board Member Selection

The next imperative is the board’s composition. Make certain that your board’s membership reflects what skill sets you need to achieve your strategic plan and its priorities. Using a “characteristics grid” is an effective way to summarize the tenure of individual members and highlight what skills might be missing, and what skills will be required from the board in the coming years. Do you have those people and their skills on your board or in the pipeline? Such a grid typically, includes gender, race, ethnicity, age, history of giving, networks, current and past career positions, and experience with the organization. Your organization should determine these characteristics. Your bylaws should articulate the number of Board members may serve at any given time; the Board may want to increase or decrease that number. Your grid, once completed, provides a profile of what your Board needs to support your strategic plan’s implementation.

Board Member Attributes

Consider what attributes, talents, and experiences you seek? Based upon your strategic plan and the board characteristics, you also need to consider attributes. For example, does the person represent the quality of character ascribed to someone with strong leadership attributes? How have you seen them portrayed? You also want to consider talent, which reflects one’s aptitude, skill, or expertise. Think of it as a part of competence. What might you seek? For example, should you consider an attorney? If so, what specific area of practice? What are the talents, given your strategic plan and the on-going membership of your board, you now want represented? Finally, what professional or individual experiences might you seek? Do you have diversity on your board? Do you want the next generation to be engaged in your organizations? You also may want someone with business experience in a particular area that will complement your strategic direction. What about a potential Board member’s service on other non-profit boards? These are a few of the questions you should be considering about your Board’s composition. Being strategic and deliberative is critical in developing your Board.

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