By Betsy Chapin Taylor, FAHP, CEO, Accordant

At the heart of every successful nonprofit organization lies a high-functioning board of directors. Boards serve as champions of an organization’s mission, stewards of its resources and architects of its strategic direction. Boards provide essential oversight, guidance and support to elevate the organization’s mission, vision, values and strategic objectives. Engaged board members also bring unique competitive advantages to leveraging their earned goodwill to connect the organization to those in their civic, social and professional networks.

Leaders in the nonprofit sector understand the pivotal role boards of directors play in driving organizational excellence and impact. However, despite the considerable talent and dedication inherent in many boards, challenges persist in optimizing their effectiveness. Therefore, it’s time to lean in around key opportunities to elevate board performance to enhance organizational outcomes.

Pervasive Challenges Thwart Progress

In today’s dynamic and complex nonprofit environment, the need for effective board governance has never been more pronounced. With increasing demands for transparency, accountability and impact, nonprofit boards must rise to the challenge of fulfilling their fiduciary responsibilities while embracing innovation and adaptability. Despite noble intentions and collective expertise, many nonprofit boards encounter myriad challenges that impede their ability to achieve success. Challenges include:

  • Role Ambiguity: Lack of clarity about board roles, responsibilities and expectations often leads to low value use of board time and influence as well as frustration and disconnection.
  • Lack of Connection to Mission: Board work is too often overly focused on the logistics of meetings and other activities rather than on illuminating the power and purpose of the nonprofit mission leading to a deflated sense of purpose.
  • Ineffective Meetings: Poorly managed board meetings characterized by lengthy agendas, one-way reports and insufficient focus on strategic issues can hinder productivity and dampen morale.
  • Limited Diversity and Inclusion: Boards often lack diversity of perspectives, life experiences and other characteristics, which can hamper innovation and diminish the organization’s ability to address complex societal challenges.
  • Resource Constraints: Limited financial resources and competing organizational priorities may constrain the capacity of boards to invest in professional development, governance best practices and strategic planning.

Strategies for Enhancing Board Effectiveness

To overcome these challenges and unlock the full potential of nonprofit boards, organizations must adopt a multifaceted approach to improvement. The following strategies offer a roadmap for enhancing board effectiveness:

  • Optimize Board Member Selection: Great boards begin by thoughtfully curating talent. Make the identification and selection of board members a continuous activity rather than something done once a year under time pressure. Align board member selection with the commitments, competencies, characteristics and connections needed to advance the nonprofit’s strategic agenda. Embrace diversity and inclusion as essential principles of effective governance by recruiting members with diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.
  • Clarify Roles and Expectations: Establish clear expectations regarding the roles, responsibilities and other expectations of board service. All board members should be prepared to fulfill the 4Is of involvement, insights, investment and influence. Then, illuminate clear and specific ways that board members can best add value to the organization through their efforts. Ensure board roles include not only the legal, fiduciary roles to be collectively fulfilled by the board but also the individual volunteerism roles that add value.
  • Leverage Social Capital: Do not fail to lean in around engaging board member as full partners in advancing philanthropy. Board members possess legitimate performance advantages in advancing philanthropy, and board engagement is highly correlated with success in raising charitable dollars and in securing significant gifts. Board members carry unmatched credibility as objective advocates. Board members also tend to be true peers of potential donors and can connect the organization to those in their own civic, social and professional circles who would be otherwise inaccessible.
  • Enhance Meeting Effectiveness: Transform board meetings into forums for generative discussion decision-making, and action. Develop structured agendas focused on key strategic priorities and allocate sufficient time for substantive deliberation. Consolidate all routine items and committee reports to a consent agenda. Start and stop meetings on time.
  • Build Relationships: Board trust is based on the accumulated interactions between board members, so do not forget to allocate time to forging stronger interpersonal relationships between board members. Social time is a lever to performance rather than a luxury item.
  • Embrace Dissent: Great boards do not rubber stamp. There is value to positive, productive and respectful dissent in the boardroom to explore issues and to ensure all the information needed for a sound decision is available. Make it part of the culture and norms that it is OK to speak up.
  • Prioritize Development: Prioritize board development initiatives to equip board members with the knowledge, skills and resources needed to effectively and confidently fulfill their roles. This includes not only crafting great onboarding programs, developing a strong board member manual and providing annual board training but also offering other opportunities to foster continuous growth and learning.
  • Hardwire Evaluation: Ensure a full board evaluation is completed at least every other year. Board evaluation should explore both collective and individual board member performance as well as the board experience. This should be seen as a “wellness” activity to refine board performance and experience rather than as a stick to shame and penalize.
  • Foster Innovation: Great boards possess the courage to share bold ideas and to embrace appropriate risk-taking that can drive innovation and strengthen strategic plans. Support these efforts by discussing emerging trends and issues that provide context to the environment as well as the rationale for embracing change.

Empowering Nonprofit Boards for Impact

As the nonprofit organization considers pathways to elevate its impact and to improve its performance, a focus on the board of directors is a valuable place to start. Nonprofit boards wield tremendous influence and responsibility in shaping the future of the nonprofit organization and its mission. By embracing a proactive approach to board improvement, nonprofit leaders can empower boards to fulfill their potential as catalysts for positive change and social impact.