How to Build an Effective Nonprofit Board of Directors

As any nonprofit leader knows, an effective and engaged board of directors is crucial to an organization’s long-term resilience and success. Healthy and productive boards don’t just happen, though. They require careful recruitment, consistent communication, genuine relationship-building, and clear expectations.

Organizations that are backed by strong, active board members, who work in partnership with your staff and one another, are typically able to accomplish much more than nonprofits that don’t prioritize board management. Paying attention to board development can bring greater satisfaction to staff, board members, and your supporters by boosting morale and organizational impact.

Strengthening your board to succeed in all aspects of your mission is an ongoing process, but the results are certainly worth the extra effort. To help your nonprofit cultivate a more effective board of directors, we’ll cover how to:

  1. Recruit the right individuals.
  2. Create a solid board structure.
  3. Communicate everyone’s responsibilities.
  4. Regularly evaluate the board’s effectiveness.

At Boardable, we’ve worked with thousands of nonprofit organizations to empower their boards with the right tools and resources. We’ve seen which board management strategies work well for many organizations, as well as which management tactics tend to fall short. With this experience, we’re confident that these four tips will guide you along the path to more effective board management. Let’s dive in!

1. Recruit the right individuals.

An effective board of directors starts with the board members themselves. Too often, recruiting is done haphazardly, at the last minute, and without a sufficient pool of candidates. Instead of waiting until a board member’s term is about to expire, start the process early to avoid scrambling and ending up with a substandard replacement.

Right before embarking on the recruitment journey, evaluate the current composition of your team. This allows you to determine what skills are missing, so you can move forward with finding the candidates who bring the right qualifications to the table. From here, you can jump straight into the recruitment process. 

Boardable’s guide to welcoming new board members explores recruitment in-depth and explains the exact steps your team should take to identify the best candidates:

  1. Set up a nominating committee. Assemble a group of trusted advisors to assess the board’s strengths and weaknesses. Then, this group will locate qualified candidates to fill any gaps. Many organizations include this role in the governance committee as an ongoing responsibility.
  2. Consider your volunteers. These individuals are already committed to your cause and understand your organization’s backend processes. Look for those who possess admirable skills that would serve your board well.
  3. Turn to current donors. Donors are also excellent candidates. Particularly, consider your major and recurring donors who demonstrate a consistent commitment to your work. These individuals tend to have connections throughout the community as well.
  4. Broaden your search to the community. Go beyond your existing network by considering prominent community leaders and volunteers at similar organizations. Considering different individuals will help you to locate the best candidates.

Finding passionate board members who possess skills your board has been missing is a crucial first step to filling open positions and building an effective board. By following these steps, you’ll be able to set a solid foundation for organizational growth and vitality.

2. Create a solid board structure.

A committed, skilled, and diverse group of board members is only the first part of the equation. To make the most of these attributes, your nonprofit needs to put the right board structure in place. This entails a straightforward hierarchy among leadership positions, an agreed-upon process for decision-making, and clearly defined responsibilities.

Your nonprofit’s bylaws should spell out how your board conducts operations. Assess if these guidelines are outdated or overall ineffective, and take the time to refresh your approach if they are. Effective bylaws should clearly define factors such as:

  • Term limits. How long is a board member expected to serve? For instance, a common board member term structure is two consecutive three-year terms.
  • Roles and responsibilities. What are your nonprofit’s expectations for its board members? Be specific by defining the responsibilities for specific officer positions.
  • The process of removing board members. What steps will your board take to remove an ineffective board member from office? Board members who aren’t fully participating or are otherwise a hindrance can drag the rest of the board down.
  • Frequency of board meetings. How often will your board meet to discuss your nonprofit’s strategies? Some boards meet monthly while others only meet a few times a year.
  • The voting process. What procedures will your board follow to make decisions? This guide explains that your bylaws should outline what constitutes a quorum, which board members can vote, and what steps they should follow when voting.

Further, you should have a clear committee structure in place. There are common standing committees that are permanent (like finance and governance). You may also need to occasionally establish ad hoc committees to fulfill a specific function and then disband them once their purpose is fulfilled. With these structural elements in place, your team can stay on track by following the proper procedures.

3. Communicate everyone’s responsibilities.

In some cases, nonprofit leaders don’t sufficiently explain roles and expectations upfront. In turn, new board members might not fully understand the commitment they’re making when they accept a position. As we mentioned, your bylaws should cover these duties, but it’s up to your current board members and leadership to explain them and ensure they’re fulfilled.

Outline what duties new members will be responsible for, and who will be tasked with informing them. Here are a few common responsibilities that board members are expected to fulfill:

  • Attend and participate in meetings. Board members are expected to attend meetings unless there is an emergency. Further, they should proactively participate in discussions and be encouraged to respectfully challenge fellow board members on their ideas and opinions when necessary.
  • Serve on a committee. Nonprofit directors are often required to serve on at least one committee. The board chair appoints committee members and should select them based on past experience, skills, and interests.
  • Participate in fundraising. Some organizations expect board members to play a role in their nonprofit fundraising strategy. They might attend fundraising events, encourage their networks to donate, and contribute their own funds to the organization. 

While specific duties may vary from organization to organization, there’s one commonality between all nonprofits: board members should advance their nonprofit’s mission. These individuals are the face of your cause and should act as such. Passionate board members will already be eager to rise to this responsibility, but it’s still necessary to communicate your performance expectations to keep everyone on the same page. 

With the vast array of responsibilities your board members hold, you’ll likely find it best to implement board management software to assign tasks and discuss projects on a regular basis. That way, you can hold the team accountable for its work and ensure all expectations are met.

4. Regularly evaluate the board’s effectiveness.

Without an accountability system in place, it’s much more likely that standards will slip. Encourage everyone to continue doing their best work by conducting an annual review. There are a handful of ways you can regularly assess effectiveness. Four common options include:

  1. Self-assessment. Have the board evaluate itself. Each board member will evaluate their own performance based on a set of criteria. Then, they’ll assess the board’s performance as a whole.
  2. Peer-to-peer assessment. Board members can assess their own individual performance, then also evaluate their fellow board members. You may want to keep peer reviews anonymous, because some board members may be reluctant to call out problematic behavior if they anticipate a confrontation.
  3. Evaluation by the executive director. Have the executive director evaluate the board as a whole. Board members will be able to decipher the executive director’s comments without specifically calling out any one person, avoiding the tension of individual performance reviews.
  4. Assessment by a third-party consultant. An experienced consultant can offer an impartial opinion of your board’s performance. Cornershop Creative’s guide to nonprofit consultants explains that you should select one whose area of expertise aligns with your nonprofit’s overall mission and goals.

Whichever approach you take, it’s important to have an evaluation process in place. A standardized method for assessing effectiveness can help keep track of strengths and identify weaknesses in your board that may require attention. That way, you can determine which skills you need and begin searching for the right candidates to join your board in the future.

Building an effective board of directors may seem like a daunting task, especially since it’s an ongoing process. However, forming an engaged team and equipping these individuals with the right structure and a sufficient understanding of their roles will be invaluable to your organization’s continued success. 

Just because successful board management is an ongoing process doesn’t mean your team has to struggle to keep up. The right technology will be instrumental in your success by helping your board members stay in regular contact with one another, collaborate on your nonprofit’s mission, and hold each other accountable for staying on top of their tasks.

When it’s all said and done, you’ll have an effective board of directors that will go out of its way to make sure your organization can continue working toward its mission.

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