board development

Four Anchors of Effective Nonprofit Boards

I recently completed a webinar series on the topic of nonprofit board development. Over the course of the three-session workshop we explored how to develop an effective and high-performing board of directors.   The purpose of this article is to highlight four core anchors of board effectiveness.  The opening premise is that to be successful, a nonprofit organization needs to think carefully about their board design, membership expectations, meeting process, and board accountability. These four ideas create the large framework for developing and maintaining a strong Board of Directors.

1.   Board design: Effective nonprofit board development starts with matching the design of your board with the developmental task of your organization.  It is obvious that a start-up nonprofit differs significantly from an established nonprofit that is a community (or even national) leader. A start up board does not have the same requirements as the board of a larger established organization.  While this seems obvious, more often that not, a nonprofit organizations fails to translate this difference into their board design.  The demands and design of a nonprofit board needs to match the developmental task of your organization.

Second, your board design also must consider the “Why” of your organization. As author Simon Sinek outlines in his seminal text Start with Why, if an organization fails to understand the answer to the question “why do we exist?” then the questions “what we do?” and “how we do it?” become less relevant. In other words, board design needs to be tied to your organization’s mission and vision. It is only at the point of clearly understanding the “Why” of your organization that you can design a board that will help you achieve your mission and vision.

A third element of board design is to organize your Board of Directors around the relational rather than the transactional.  Too often nonprofit Boards of Directors are bureaucratic and focus on decisions rather than relationships. Such boards approve minutes, pass budgets, create directives, and ensure compliance with the law. While those functions are critical to an organization and are part of proper board governance, they do not define the whole of what an effective board really does. In reality your board of directors acts in relationship to the community you serve and the organization’s staff.  Board members participate in the community and by extension, both, represent the organization to the community and conversely represent the community back to the nonprofit agency. Further if a board neglects its relationship to agency staff members, it risks misunderstanding how they best can support the internal operations of the organization. The relational elements of board operations impact the design of your Board of Directors.

In short, the formula for effective for design is: Developmental Stage + Mission and Vision + Relational Design Structure = Board Effectiveness.

2. Membership as engagement: A second theme of the webinar series was a focus on the expectations of board membership and the engagement of board members. Too often I’ve seen nonprofit leaders apologize for the expectations of board service or worse, minimize expectations.  Effective boards, however, are unapologetic about the expectations that they have for board members.  Clearly setting the expectations for board service related to time, engagement, contribution, influence, and governance is critical to a high functioning nonprofit board.  While setting a “high bar” for board service potentially increases challenge of recruiting effective board members, the extra time and patience will pay off in the long term.  Instead of board members who simply show up, a board member with expectations will actually contribute to your organizations success.  Recruiting  such qualified and engaged board members will require cultivating board membership in much the same way that your organization cultivates major donors.

3. Leadership and shared leadership: Effective nonprofits develop board leaders have: strong clarity of values, the ability to see commonalities, a vision for how things can be different, mobilizing a team to action, and have a general concern for developing people (see Turning Point Study). Further, as reflected in the research of BoardSource (Nonprofit Governance Index), all board members need to share an interest in coaching, teaching and helping each other to develop their strengths, as well as fostering other practices of shared leadership. Without a practice of shared leadership among all members and an insightful Board Chair, the effectiveness of the board is often compromised.

Finally it should be noted that effective board leadership also includes the practice of self-reflection.  High-performing boards periodically assess their own internal effectiveness because without periodic self-reflection a board has no true measure of how well they are doing.

4. Meeting process and facilitation: A final element of high-performing boards that was covered in the webinar series was that effective boards have a clear and consistent focus on meeting process and meeting facilitation.  High-performing boards plan meetings carefully with agendas that include a focus on outcomes, process, agreements, actions, and accountabilities.  A clear facilitation process, decision-making procedure, and problem-solving framework support the agenda and meeting. Finally minutes document the progress and accountability of the meetings and are used to move projects forward as action planning tools.

Meeting process is also built around high engagement. Board meetings with intentional design focus less on reports and document scrutiny and more on activities such as developing and acting on strategy, advocating for the agency, connecting the agency to resources, coaching and supporting the Executive Director, and measuring organizational performance.

While the short article is not intended to detail how effective boards are created, I have tried to identify the core areas where boards can be improved.   In essence board design membership expectations, Board leadership, and meeting process and facilitation, can be used as diagnostic areas in which you can examine the strength and health of your nonprofit board.  Without investing in board improvement, nonprofit organizations will become less competitive in this turbulent economic and social service environment. Taken together, these elements suggest that a high-performing boards the result of an intentional design, cultivation of members, setting clear expectations, and designing a high value meeting process.  Strong boards still equate with strong nonprofit organizations and thriving nonprofit organizations take the time to invest in developing their board.


Photo: Credit: ammcintosh1


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. Interesting. Thank you! We are at the beginning of our organization’s independence from another nonprofit, and our board is evolving with it. Just sent your article to my board chair.

  2. Thanx for your comments Kim. I am a big believer that there really is no one size fits all board design. I hope to offer the full webinar again in the fall and as shameless self-promotion,wanted you to know I am now offering customized and tailored versions of the trainings for nonprofit boards as well.

    1. I blush. Thanx for the compliment Gregory. In my firm, I have worked hard to create a solutions-focused practice that partners more deeply, reaches further, and is more passionate about excellence. Your excellence.

Comments are closed.