Nonprofit Board Leadership: 6 Strategies to Steer the Ship

Your nonprofit’s board is one of your most valuable assets. A successful board will play an important part in fundraising initiatives, generate community support, and create energy for your mission.

Although governance models vary based on the needs and goals of every nonprofit, the underlying concept is the same. Your board members should provide key advice and amplify your impact. 

But in order to fully leverage the power of your board members, you need to spend time improving board leadership and building a high-impact team. Without the right leadership in place, your board may lack a unified direction or struggle to move your mission forward.

With many ongoing responsibilities, executive directors often encounter challenges with developing a highly motivated, productive board. 

However, leadership can make or break your board’s effectiveness, so to help, we’ve gathered a few proven best practices for effective nonprofit board leadership, including:

  1. Understand your role and your goal.
  2. Create structures for a strong foundation. 
  3. Set clear expectations and hold members accountable.
  4. Cultivate connections and establish a collaborative culture.
  5. Respect the value of your board members.
  6. Keep your eye on the big picture.

By putting these strategies into action, you’ll be better prepared to steer your nonprofit board in a direction that effectively supports your mission. Let’s get started.

  1. Understand your role and your goal.

Running your nonprofit board successfully is about more than just planning retreats and running effective virtual board meetings—though of course, those are important too! 

Taking the time to define and understand your job will set you apart from other nonprofit leaders. And we mean this literally: an estimated 51% of board chairs do nothing specific to prepare for the role.

The exact nature of your role will depend on your title. There are two main titles that have a hand in board leadership, and while they may sound interchangeable, they are actually very different. The “leader” in nonprofit board leadership refers to two primary positions, including:

  • The executive director. This individual is in charge of a nonprofit’s day-to-day operations. They do the on-the-ground work of directing employees and volunteers to fulfill a nonprofit’s mission. Typically, this role has less turnover over time.
  • The board chair. This person focuses more on big-picture goals and initiatives, and they usually don’t have any operational responsibilities. However, one big obligation handled by the board (and the chair) rather than the ED is fiduciary responsibility. Finally, board chairs usually serve for a specified term of just a few years.

The responsibilities of the board chair and executive director do often overlap, and nonprofits will be most successful when they work in agreement. Both are key to running a sustainable and effective nonprofit, which is why clearly defining each role is so important. 

Once you understand your role and responsibilities, identify what success in this position would look like for you. Consider the overall goals of your organization and how you hope to mobilize your board to reach them. You’ll likely have some measurable indicators in place to track the entire board’s progress, but it’s also wise to set personal goals for your leadership.

  1. Create structures for a strong foundation.

The best way to ensure long-term growth of your nonprofit board is by establishing a strong starting point. A few important building blocks involve training, communication, and key systems. Having these in place from the outset will save you time and frustration down the line.

First, it’s always a good idea to provide information and training resources to new board members. But even if you’re working with a more experienced board, consider formalizing key protocols so that everyone is on the same page. 

By laying the groundwork for training and development, you’ll set your board members on a path for continuous improvement.

Strategic communication is also a key element of board leadership. We recommend implementing communication best practices including:

  • Providing a roadmap. Make sure everyone understands roughly when and how often they’ll hear from you. Sticking to a schedule will help your board stay engaged and help you stay on track.
  • Surveying current needs. Especially if you’ve just taken the helm of your nonprofit board, you’ll want to assess the current communication plans to see what is working well and what needs to be revamped.
  • Listening. In any sector, a good leader is one who listens. Establish clear channels so that your board members always know how to approach you. And when they do, practice active listening and take action on their suggestions!

You’ll also want to work with your team to decide what tools you’ll use to stay in touch and execute tasks. You could use a group messaging system, email, or something with more features. We recommend dedicated board management software to keep everything in one place.

  1. Set clear expectations and hold members accountable.

To be successful, everyone on your board needs to understand what is expected of them. Before joining the board, there should be a frank discussion about the necessary time commitment so that nobody is taken by surprise.

But that should be just the start of the conversation. Set clear expectations for all levels of involvement, including big-picture responsibilities as well as the minutiae of day-to-day tasks. 

Each board member will have their own set of responsibilities depending on their own specialized skills and the needs of your nonprofit. Take the time to define these so that there’s no uncertainty.

And when smaller tasks come up, have a plan in place for assigning them. Many of us have experienced the challenge of wondering, who was supposed to take care of that?

This is especially critical for one-off projects or needs that arise in the middle of a meeting. As Boardable explains in their guide to board meeting minutes, dedicated board software can help you clearly define even small responsibilities so that nothing falls through the cracks.

Once everything is defined, you’ll be well-positioned to follow up with members and ensure they are achieving their individual goals. This will keep the overall board moving in the right direction.

  1. Cultivate connections and establish a collaborative culture.

Efficiency is important, but a truly successful board is driven by a sense of community. Strong leaders provide opportunities for board members to connect with each other and engage with the mission.

One way to accomplish this is by holding an in-person or virtual board retreat where members dedicate an afternoon or a weekend to your nonprofit. Depending on your plans for the retreat, this can knock out several goals at once, including strategic planning and culture building. 

For a year-round approach, create a mentor system among your board members. Newer members will appreciate having a veteran to show them the ropes, and more seasoned individuals will enjoy being able to provide advice and expertise. This can also boost motivation and accountability for both parties.

Finally, there’s also the tried-and-true method of doing an icebreaker activity at board meetings. Although some of the ideas out there may be a little corny, they really do help your members engage on a personal level. Even a simple conversation prompt like sharing a favorite memory with the nonprofit can help form connections and get the conversation flowing.

  1. Respect the value of your board members.

Your board members lead busy lives and often have limited time and energy. Respect the commitment they’ve made to your nonprofit by honoring their valuable time. 

One key way to do this is by running efficient and well-planned board meetings. Your board members should never finish a lengthy meeting and think, That could have been sent in an email. Ineffective meetings are a recipe for burnout and disengagement.

Luckily, it’s simple for board chairs to avoid those outcomes with the right strategies in place. This guide to board meeting agendas offers some key tips for planning your next meeting:

  • Set and distribute an agenda ahead of time. This gives your board members the opportunity to prepare effectively. You don’t want to blindside someone by asking for a project briefing that they weren’t expecting to give! This will also help everyone come to the table with insightful ideas and thought-provoking questions.
  • Create a logical order. A well-organized agenda will keep your board from jumping around randomly to different topics. You could organize by type of item, by the associated board member, or by importance.
  • Note goals for each item. For every point of discussion, your agenda should say whether the goal is to inform, generate ideas, or reach a consensus. This makes it clear whether the meeting has accomplished everything you intended.
  • Limit length. Each item on the agenda should have a prescribed length of time for discussion—keep it as short as possible! This rule of thumb also applies to the length of the agenda as a whole. 

Incorporating these tips into your board leadership strategy will help keep meetings productive and on-track. Ultimately, this will convey that you value your board members’ time, encouraging them to stay engaged.

  1. Keep your eye on the big picture.

While it’s important to keep routine responsibilities like meeting planning running smoothly, that’s just a small part of your role.

As board chair, you’ll have a key role in strategic planning for your nonprofit. While the exact nature of each plan varies, it will include measurable goals, initiatives to prioritize, an assessment of strengths and weaknesses, and a roadmap for the future.

According to Bloomerang, your board should meet to revisit your strategic plan every 3-5 years. But as the leader of the board, your big-picture strategic plan should always be in the back of your mind.

As you help your board oversee the details of event organizing, campaign planning, and resource allocation, try to view everything through the lens of your strategic plan. Ask yourself: Is this course of action taking us closer or further away from our organization’s goals?

With practice, this perspective will become second nature, and you’ll be able to confidently lead your board in the right direction.

Especially in a time of uncertainty for many organizations, nonprofit boards need skilled leaders to drive success. These actionable strategies will help you provide board members with the environment and tools they need to support your mission. Good luck!

Similar Posts