High Performing Board

Developing a High Performing Nonprofit Board

Over the last several months I have become an informal advisor to an executive director of an agency in anther state. She manages a young but growing organization serving youth at risk.  This executive director is juggling both the growth of a programs and the growth of the organizational infrastructure. As with most organizations transitioning out of the “grassroots” stage and developing into an established mid-size organization, this director and her agency’s board are struggling with questions of how how to evolve the board structure, operations and leadership. In a recent conversation with this director she was lamenting, “I wish we could create a simple pathway forward that we could all agree to that would get us to the place of being a high performing board.” We spent the next half an hour  taking about that pathway.

Fast forward to a few days ago. I was participating in a synchronous chat using Twitter on the topic of creating a “courageous nonprofit board.”  Twitter is an abysmal tool to have a meaningful conversation with forty or fifty nonprofit professionals, however, it was interesting to see the group spew out a steady stream of almost random 2-3 sentence messages.  While as coherent as the playground of a preschool, the messages passing across my computer screen did offer the opportunity for me to further self-reflect on the topic of board development.

In the past, I have written episodically on the topic of board development and, in this post, I wanted to put in writing some thoughts about an evolving framework for board development. While not complete, I hope it serves as some directional anchor points that nonprofit leaders can use to think about board development and performance.

The Oregon Attorney General has boiled Nonprofit Board service down to a 12-page booklet with lots of white space. Many nonprofit boards would do well to start organizing their operations around the core functions of care, loyalty, obedience, and oversight. However, once the basic structure is in place, it is important to get outside of the core and into the “white space.”  Indeed, once a board gets into the white space the pathway gets interesting as it in the white space where the metal of high performing boards is tempered. So what exactly is found in the white space? I would suggest the following attributes:

1.   Commitment, Consensus and Community It is my fundamental belief that high performing boards cannot exist without a tacit sense of community. Board and staff will be successful in direct proportion to the degree that there is a shared sense of purpose and focus that is organized around a commitment and consensus (as in general agreement and not unanimity). In practical terms, it means building board membership first and foremost from the perspective of  the agency’s vision, mission, community and culture.  Without social connectivity between board member and the organization, the board will be challenged to excel.

2. Internalizing Theories of Change, Leverage, and Scale A second dimension of a high performing board is for members to understand how the agency seeks to effect change. It is essential that a board is clear about the social impact intended by the agency, specifically: 1) how the agency employs theories of change, 2) how the agency’s internal programs and services and its external partnerships leverage or magnify impact and 3) how the agency’s growth trajectory will ultimately scale the social impact.  Cultivating a strong understanding of the theoretical framework for the agency is not only an intellectual exercise but becomes the core language and frame of reference used by board members as they discuss strategy, performance improvement, and is the place from which the board makes decisions.

3. Understanding the Local Nonprofit Ecosystem A third dimension of a high performing board is for the board to understand the nonprofit and social service sector in general and possess a deep understanding of the local nonprofit and social service ecosystem. Understanding how the local nonprofit agencies, government, philanthropic organizations, citizens and business collectively work to address community needs, enables a board  to better use their civic reach to strengthen the agency they serve.

4. Engaging in Three Core Planning Processes One of the themes of my blog this year is to focus on the core nonprofit planning processes. As I have written before, strategic planning, evaluation planning, and resource development planning are three intersecting disciplines that serve as the strategy core for a board. Indeed, the simplest measure of board performance is the degree to which they invest time, energy, and resources in the three domains of nonprofit planning.

5. Organizing around the Long View A final dimension of a high performing board is to organize around the long view. It is my belief that high performing boards are measured over years and not months. Boards become high performers with an intentional and disciplined approach to developing a deep understanding of the agency it serves.  Such a board also cultivates learning and inquiry management practices that comprise an iterative learning-to-action cycle over time.  Culture, history and enthusiasm are grown with intentionality and patience. Strong boards take time to develop.

Most nonprofit board members have a passion and mission affiliation for the organization where they serve. Most board members also bring high-value skills and experiences that can support the growth the agency.  The task of leadership is to recognize the contributions of each board member and to weave together the individuals into a collective board that becomes more than the sum of its parts.  Offered in this post are germinal ideas that can be used to help nonprofit boards strengthen and clarify that process of weaving together a high performing board.

~ Mark

Photo Credit:  Foundry Co


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.


  1. This is pretty great, Mark. And I agree – that pathway that both the board and the Ed must travel together is often narrow and with few markings. The problem with the “white space” you mention is that it’s in that white space that directions are needed, and if you’ll forgive the continuance of this metaphor, a means of clearing the path. Boards just don’t know what to do. A part time voluntary group who don’t know each other well, they’re told over and over that their primary responsibility is fundraising, not governance, and rarely given as clear a mandate as you’ve described above.

    So what’s the next step? How do boards create their own community, understand how they can effect change, and engage in planning processes? I think your ideas are more than germinal – and this is a critical discussion fir the nonprofit sector.

    And PS, I love that npcons tweet chat. Reminds me of a successful party with a great noisy discussion going.

    1. Alexandra, I am not suggesting that the pathway is narrow or in need of direction. Indeed, type in nonprofit board development in Google and you get 1,170,000 results. I am of the mindset that we need to inspire focus and a little larger imagination rather than pile on more tools. The gap is understanding the broad vision of what a board could and should be and not a gap related to direction or resources. The first step is about expanding vision. Sticking with the germinal theme, I am with Henry David Thoreau who once wrote “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a see there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” Translated, I believe that given a larger vision, most nonprofit agencies can strengthen their boards with very little direction. But since you asked about what else, I would add three additional ideas to the mix:

      I am simply suggesting that developing a high performing board is a larger proposition than hosting an annual board retreat or new board member orientation. While many nonprofits use development plans as a way of building staff capacity, few boards have intentional written plans for strengthening the board capacity. A starting point for a board is to create an annual development plan that might include “the” annual retreat and “the” board orientation but might also include board in-service training workshops, job shadowing by board members, partner panels or collaboration fairs. I think it also includes print resources such has emerging and timely articles and … you see… Imagination.

      I would also suggest that if a board is simply “A part time voluntary group who don’t know each other well, they’re told over and over that their primary responsibility is fundraising, not governance” then the agency staff best start looking for new jobs. While we may be bumping out of the recession and some measure of stability is returning to foundation endowments and individual giving, the next wave of economic challenge will be in deep government cuts to grants and contracts that will destabilize and further fracture the funding ecosystems for nonprofits. Any nonprofit without a board that can be a voluntary group with a “full time” mindset and commitment to support the agency –strategically is one that is at increased risk for eroding fundamentals or even a rapid demise.

      Finally, while I am a local consultant, it is clear to me that the impetus for change must be primarily internal to an organization. While an external consultant might be able to objectively assess an nonprofit agency and help design a board development process, the fundamental change must become part of the DNA and culture of an organization. Without an internal commitment to developing a high performing board, it simply will not happen.

      Again, Alexandra, thanks for your contribution.

Comments are closed.