Nonprofit Board Development

Nonprofits Need to Invest in Developing High-Performing Boards

This is the third in a series of blog posts about nonprofit investments and is intended to focus our attention what investments are urgent (see here for part 1 part 2).  I recently attended a networking event in Portland for nonprofit and business leaders that was hosted by the Willamette Valley Development Officers.  Over the course of two hours,  I spoke with a couple dozen nonprofit leaders. One of the core themes that I heard from several leaders was a variation of, “our board could use help _____ [fill in the blank].”  I was actually taken a back a bit by the prevalence of the thinking.

What I find interesting is that despite the amount of research and writing on the subject of board development that we have at our fingertips (Google Scholar), despite the fact that BoardSource, has been around since 1990, and despite the fact that that there are literally dozens of webinars and training events on board development, there remains a pain point for many nonprofits revolving around under-performing boards of directors.  Clearly it is not a lack of knowledge that leads to underperforming boards but it a lack of intentionality and investment in cultivating a high preforming board. More often than not, the lack if intention is the result of board drift rather than a deliberate choice. Nonprofit leaders get too busy and boards remain passive. To break the cycle, nonprofits need to make investments in developing the strength, performance, and contribution of their boards of directors.  So, again, we ask, what do such investments look like?

1.   Invest in a foundation inspection: Board development 101 is simply, people, process, performance. Do you have the basic assets such as job descriptions, recruitment plan, an orientation process, board policies, shared access to files, organized agendas, and usable meeting minutes?  I can’t imagine very many nonprofits failing this inspection but if there are cracks in the foundation, then patch them.

2.   Invest in continuous learning:  Some of the most effective boards that I have worked with invest in continuous learning.  Common for such organizations are things like, routine board training sessions, subscriptions to journals like Nonprofit Quarterly, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Stanford Social Innovation Review, and an organizational subscription to BoardSource for ongoing professional development.  Articles, eNewsletters, and other resources are routinely shared with the board.

3.   Invest in building a strong network: If a board has a strong network, the connections will benefit your organization as you cultivate resources, expertise, and civic reach board members.  How do you invest in building a network?  With planning and thought. Pop quiz.  How many of your board members are connected to each other on LinkedIn?  How many follow your nonprofit’s LinkedIn profile? How many have your nonprofit listed on their profile?   When was the last time your board sponsored a networking event to introduce people to the organization? How many people are on your nonprofit’s advisory or ambassador boards?  The point is that developing a network requires intentionality but it is not rocket science.  It is a strategic investment.

4.   Invest in your next board: I am working with a nonprofit board that is developing a recruitment plan for bringing on new board members.  What is great this board is that they are not asking the question, “what do we need from our board members today?” Rather, they are looking at their strategic plan goals 1-2 years from now (calling for a major expansion at that time) and asking the question “what do we need from our board members in two years?” Investing in the board you need tomorrow is an intentional process of thinking ahead even as you are doing the work of today.

Without intentional investments in board development, the inclination of a board s to drift along, reviewing financials and approving whatever the executive director says. The highlight of the board meeting is perseverating over a supply line item that is at 126% of the budget and following up with a thoughtful discussion of buying recycled inkjet cartridges as a way to bring that line item into balance.  Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a little (hopefully a lot) but the point is that for many nonprofit agencies, their board of directors is an underutilized resource  that operates at a strategic value that is much lower than its potential.  For nonprofits to be successful, their boards need to set the bar high and continue to reach it and then set it higher.  Unleashing this potential takes investment thinking.

As with all of the articles in this series, my goal is to suggest ways of thinking about investing rather than being comprehensive or super prescriptive. I am assuming you have read about the tactics of board improvement before (here is my archive).  In this article, I simply want to suggest that nonprofits need to adopt a mindset of investing when it comes to building a board.  Board development is a task, building a high performing board is an investment with return of increased organizational effectiveness and strategy.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.


photo credit: DesignCue


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.