Some things in life are unavoidable, no matter how much you wish they would just go away. Taxes, of course, and death. Rush-hour traffic. Dental appointments.
But nonprofit CEOs suffer a unique kind of torture: dealing with a problematic Board of Directors.
If you're a nonprofit leader, you've likely experienced problems with your board. Perhaps your board members aren't as engaged as you wish they were. They lack commitment to your cause and your leadership. Perhaps they detract from your strategic plan by flip-flopping on the direction of the organization. Or perhaps they meddle too much in your staff's day-to-day activities.
In my work with nonprofits, I have seen some extremely effective boards and some seriously dysfunctional ones. But in most cases, boards are just limping along, not creating drama, but with much room for improvement.
To avoid limping along or being frustrated by the performance (or lack thereof) from your board members, you need to make sure to set clear expectations at the outset. These are 10 basic things that your board members should be expected to do:
What this entails varies by organization, but generally boards are expected to at least review and approve operating budgets, perform regular performance and salary reviews for the organization’s CEO, and review investment decisions. It is a good idea to have a lawyer prepare and distribute a simple document summarizing what is expected of board members here.
Board members need to make themselves easily accessible to staff leaders, within reason.
It is common and perfectly acceptable for nonprofits to require board members to give a specific amount or more each year. Sometimes this expectation is communicated as a “give or get” minimum. And sometimes exceptions are carved out for board members who bring other, special skills to the table. But in any case expectations in this department should be clear. Just how much a board member should be expected to give or get depends on the size and nature of the organization, but for most nonprofits this number is probably in the five figures.
This point is connected to #3, but deserves a distinct place of prominence. Donors involved in philanthropic circles with great giving capacity often get asked to be on various nonprofit boards. And all too often, these philanthropists accept more board positions than they can reasonably commit to in any significant way. To make sure your board members are truly dedicated to your organization, let them know that you expect to be among the "top 5" organizations to receive their annual philanthropic support. This requirement also allows board members who may not have the giving capacity to make large annual gifts and meet a giving minimum, but who nonetheless can prioritize your organization in their giving and bring their other, special skills to the table.
Board members should expect often to be asked to identify, provide information about, and help make connections with other potential supporters. Besides other givers, board members should also help link staff leaders with others in the community or sector, and be proactive about promoting your organization in appropriate ways in conversations with friends, colleagues, and potential donors.
Definite, specific expectations should be set regarding board meeting attendance. The bylaws should provide for automatic removal of board members who fail to meet these requirements.
The most common board committees are (1) the executive committee, consisting of board officers; (2) the development committee, charged with working with the organization’s leadership to help raise money; (3) the nominations committee, charged with identifying and recruiting new board members; and (4) other area committees, often including finance, programs, and operations. All board members should expect to serve on at least one of these committees.
Once a CEO and/or other executive staff are in place, board members need to discipline themselves not to interfere with the day-to-day operations of the organization, unless called upon by the CEO to do so.
Board members should be committed to attending the organization’s most important events, especially fundraisers, and they should generally be open to helping host smaller events at their homes or clubs, hotels, restaurants, etc.
including, perhaps, writing thank you notes in response to major gifts, signing important letters when asked by the CEO, and meeting with major-donor prospects.