Board Development

Developmental Focus of A Nonprofit Board

This was among one of my earliest blog posts in my consulting career.  While my thinking has been refined by experience and continued exploration of the topic, there are stall some relevant concepts in this article.

One of the common challenges that face many nonprofit agencies is creating a board that helps the organization grow and thrive. On the surface, the primary responsibilities of a nonprofit board are to provide oversight and governance to the agency. Generally agreed upon, governance includes: 1) planning and providing strategic direction; 2) approving operational policies; 3) budgeting and monitoring expenditures; 4) participating in fundraising and resource development; 5) advocating for the organization, 6) supporting and evaluating executive director; and 7) ensuring compliance with legal, regulatory, and financial requirements.

However while many nonprofit agency boards understand their governance many nonprofit agencies don’t set a clear expectation for their board relative to helping the agency grow and thrive. It might sound like this statement that I once heard a colleague make, “I have serving on their board for over a year. I show up to meetings, we eat pizza and look at budgets and occasionally a policy. We talk a lot about trying to generate more revenues but beyond that, I am not sure what my contribution is to the agency.” I suggested to my friend that what might be missing is a board strategy. Board strategy is the result of thoughtful deliberations by the board and staff of the agency. Strategy only emerges as you zoom out to the systems level and ask the question “What is the larger container of your board activity.” In my experience, a typical nonprofit would describe their ideal board like this:

“We want a multicultural board comprised of well connected power brokers who understand our mission, represent our service areas, and can provide us support in technology, human resources, fundraising, marketing, public relations, legal guidance and finances.”

Unfortunately, packed into that one strategy are actually five distinct strategies, each representing a unique focus that would better support nonprofit organizations than trying to create a magical all-in-one board. So unpacking board strategies we can list at least five board strategies. These strategies along with key recruitment questions follow.

1.   Cross-Cultural or Culture Specific Board
While many nonprofit agencies need to ensure that their board represents the  cultural diversity of the community they serve, not every board should be defined by diversity.  For all nonprofits diversity must be about organizational DNA. For some nonprofit agencies, diversity should also be the strategic focus. When an agency primarily serves cultural communities or communities of color, being myopic about board diversity makes strategic sense. Not only is it important that the board reflects the demographics of the population you serve and is connected to the community, developing a cross-cultural or culturally specific board can be a competitive advantage in resource development and fundraising. Key recruitment questions:

•  Does s/he have connections to cultural community at the local, state or national level?
•  Does s/he bring an understanding of the local context, history, politics and networks?
•  Does s/he have the reputation as being an authentic voice in the community?

2.   Sector Board
Another strategy for board development is to build a board that effectively represents the sector or sectors in which the agency operates. So, for example, if your agency works in schools, a sector approach would build a board that represents facets of that sector. So, for example you might have a board comprised of teachers, administrators, PTA-involved parent, community advocates and business leaders committed to schools. Having a sector focused board positions you to adapt or expand or replicate your existing program services and advocate effectively for institutionalizing your programs. Key recruitment questions:

• Does s/he have knowledge of needs and sector trends that can help build your programs?
• Does s/he have connections to people, professional networks and organizations at the local, state or national level?
• Does s/he bring an understanding of the local context, history, politics and networks?

3.   Influence Board
A third approach is to develop a high-influence board that is willing to leverage their relationships and influence to develop financial resources for the organization and expand program services. Of all the board strategies, this is the most challenging to execute well. Several reasons for this include the fact that many nonprofits try to woo the same influential people, many of whom, have influence because they are already connected and extended. Also, influential board members may only have limited the time to give to your cause. However, a strategically designed board of influence can create an enormous competitive advantage by increasing the credibility of your agency. Key recruitment questions:

• Does s/he have connections to influential decision makers at the local, state or national level?
• Does s/he have the focus and non-competing interests to be effective for agency?
• Does s/he have the time to commit to your organization in order to be effective at the core governance functions of your agency?

4.   Management Board
A fourth board design strategy is to recruit board members who can augment, expand or offset deficits in the agency management structure. This strategy tries to build a board with functional management expertise. For example the board slots might be allotted to address technology, human resources, fundraising, marketing, public relations, legal guidance and finances. Having a board with expertise in each functional area of operation effectively augments the management structure of the agency and potentially lowers agency administrative costs. The key to making this strategy work is to have clearly delineated expectations for each of the board slots so that potential board members know that they are expected to contribute their professional expertise. Key recruitment questions

• Does s/he have knowledge and skills to oversee an administrative function?
• Does s/he have the expectation and time to support an administrative function of the organization?
• Does s/he have any professional, ethical or regulator constraints that would prevent him/her from fulfilling the expected functions?

5.   Growth Board
The final board development strategy is to create a board that is weighted in expertise and support the growth of your organizational mission as the primary membership criteria. This approach seeks to build visionary leadership and seeks to leverage a practitioner understanding of content to guide mission-driven growth of the organization. This form of a board not only supports best practices and quality of existing programs and services but this board can also guide the development of staff and expand program services into new areas. Key Recruitment Questions:

• Does s/he have knowledge and skills related to the mission and vision of our agency?
• Does s/he have connections to professional networks and organizations at the local, state or national level?
• Does s/he see the larger systems in which we operate and can s/he help us improve, and expand our programs and services?
• Does s/he have the potential to inspire staff and/or act as a spokesperson for our organization?

A board comprised of generalists can reasonably provide the governance that nonprofits require and many nonprofits successfully operate in this model. However, from the perspective of facilitating and designing a process that orients a board towards performance improvement; effective boards will combine governance with a larger purpose that is clear, explicit and focused. Consider the five strategies above as “story starters” for you and your board and are likely not the definitive list of board typology. They are meant to help you think about strategy and focus related to your board as you look for ways to improve your board’s performance.



Photo Credit: FreeImages9

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.