Nonprofit Board Growth

Four Board Principles for a Fast Growing Nonprofit

During the past several years, I have had the privilege of working with a number of nonprofit boards that are leading and supporting  fast growing nonprofit organizations.  In some cases the fast growth had created tension. It is typical that the board feels like their established operating agreements are not responsive enough to accommodate the rapid decision-making required by the growth.  In other cases, board members confessed to me a variation of, “I am a bit disoriented.  Somehow this board has become very different from the when I joined it a couple of years ago.”  In some ways, the positive and fast growth of a nonprofit organization can mirror a nonprofit in a negative crisis, such as the abrupt and unplanned departure of an Executive Director or an unexpected and dramatic economic downturn. So how does a nonprofit board of directors adapt to a growing organization?  In this addition to my informal series of articles on board development, I want to offer four Board principles for supporting a fast growing nonprofit organization.

1.  Focus on Communication and Relationships:  Trust is the basis of a strong relationship between a nonprofit board and the organization’s management team.  Plain and simple, where trust exists so does performance. And. Conversely, in the absence of trust, bedlam often lurks around the next corner.  In a fast growing nonprofit, the board and management team needs to invest in building productive working relationships so that there is a high degree of communication, dialogue, and mutual support.  These foundations of trust are shortchanged at the peril of the organization.  Success is created as a partnership between the board and senior staff and trust at the core of that partnership.

2. Clarify Personal and Collective Expectations: A second principle for the board of a fast growing nonprofit is to revisit personal and collective expectations.  As an organization grows the expectations of board members change.  Fast growth, is often the watershed event that shifts the nonprofit board from being a board that manages to a board that fully delegates.  In making this shift, your broad members must individually and collectively negotiate a new set of expectations to guide their board engagement.  This is the time to embrace board transitions, recognizing that for some board members, it might be time to rotate off of the board and into an advisory role. It is also the opportunity to recruit new board members who bring new skills, perspectives and energy.

3.  Adjust Board Structure:  During times of rapid growth, it is also important for nonprofit boards to rethink their board structure. This might mean simplifying the way the board works by changing or eliminating working committees that were often established early in the nonprofit’s lifecycle and have become less relevant (or even irrelevant) today.  Meeting formats, frequency, length, and decision-making might also need to be adjusted.  Sometimes, fewer board meetings (quarterly instead of monthly) makes more sense to allow space for ad hoc meetings focused on strategy and strategy execution.

4.  Govern, Don’t Second Guess: While most nonprofit board members can recite the core concepts of governance (due care, loyalty, obedience, record-keeping, controls, etc.), rapid growth in a nonprofit organization can create anxiety about governance. I have heard more than one board member express the angst that, “we are growing so fast I just want to make sure that the management team is doing what they are supposed to.”  Yet when I ask these same board members about their past history with the management team, more often than not, I hear a high degree of confidence.  “We would not be where we are today without him or her.” So it is somewhat ironic that rapid growth can lead some of your board members to second-guess management.  However, rather than second-guessing the management team or trying to slow things down, your nonprofit board will be better served by sticking to the fundamentals of governance, ensuring communication, ensuring that controls are adequate, and ensuring effective decision-making.  Boards of rapidly growing organizations must operate in support of the growth not against it.

The illustration in this post is from my consulting notebook and is a diagram that emerged from conversations with board members of an organization that I was working with at some point in the past.  The diagram aptly illustrates what matters to a growing nonprofit.  Organizational success matters most and the board should do everything in its power to support growth rather than becoming a speed bump to organizational success. To be a support: a)  the flow of information (trust) matters, b) expectations matter, c) relationships matter, and d) structure matter.  In short, the speed at which a nonprofit organization adapts and grows must be paralleled by a board willing to match the organization’s speed in adapting and growing as well.  In my experience, the highest performing boards embrace, plan for, and capitalize on such change.

~Mark

Photo Credit Niek Verlaan

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.

2 Comments

  1. Great post Mark. I have one more thought. Such a board may also need to make sure that both management and the board have much more sophisticated financial tools then it currently. I find that board anxiety around rapid growth also grows out of a concern that the organization is taking on financial commitments that may outpace its ability to deliver. Even though management may have delivered in the past, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t seen cases where trust in past delivery of the same management team led the board to just stop paying attention or asking rigorous questions — and ended up with the organization in serious financial trouble. This may be what you mean by “ensuring controls are adequate” but it might be helpful to call this out separately.

  2. Gail, Well said, and a great addition. The four principles of this article primarily focused in the relational side of board development. However, as you rightly observed, = I omitted an important practice-based principle. So Bonus Principle

    5. Focus on Program and Business Strategy: In addition to governing, Boards of fast growing nonprofit organizations need to also focus on program and business strategy. Growing boards pay attention to strategy. Strategic planning and business planning take on more significance to growing organizations. Without attention to program and business models, as Gifford points out, it jeopardizes the organization’s ability to absorb the growth and deliver on the commitments made. This may mean planning for growing capacity, investing in scaling systems or ensuring sufficient management expertise and staffing to manage the growth.

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