Build A More Effective Board

Board Development Techniques

It is undeniable that a nonprofit organization’s success in fundraising is affected by the way it goes about selecting and recruiting its board members.  Success is also influenced by the way new board members are introduced to the organization and how they become involved in the operational and organizational life of the institution.

Many organizations seem to walk through these functions in a routine manner, without giving much thought to the process.  Too often, we see a board’s nominating committee favor candidates who are familiar, accessible and available, rather than those who could make a real difference.  To compound the problem, organizations often fail to place an emphasis on board member responsibilities, especially those duties related to fundraising.  And yet, these same organizations are often the first to bemoan the fact that they have difficulty attracting and retaining the most respected, capable and effective people — those who have a reputation for getting things done and who thrive on a challenge!

An organization will gain a definite edge over its competitors if it does a better job of enlisting, training and involving its board members.

Some of the strongest and most effective boards are those known to be most selective about their membership, and those which demand a great deal from their members.  That’s not because the best volunteers are gluttons for punishment; it’s because they seek involvement that is authentic, challenging, and meaningful.  Most volunteers seek the satisfaction of accomplishing something important, and gravitate to organizations which offer the opportunity to make a difference.

Some organizations, however, may not be looking for go-getters.   They may prefer board members who are passive and agreeable — those who don’t make waves.   The top administrator may in fact be quite comfortable with the status quo, and probably benefit from it, until it’s time to raise money or to advance the organization in a bold new direction.

Most development professionals are looking for ways to excite, inspire and activate board leaders.  They are hoping to attract the same movers and shakers every other nonprofit organization seeks to attract — volunteers who aspire to raise more money, initiate new programs, and serve new constituencies.

To accomplish these things, we do not need to make board membership easier; we need to make it more selective, more demanding, and more rewarding.  Making changes at the board level can be a sensitive and difficult task, but it is well worth the effort.  We have often recommended restructuring an organization’s old nominating committee and creating a new Committee on Governance (or if you prefer, Committee on Trustees).  The purpose of this committee is to focus year-round on the continuous improvement of the board as a steward of the public trust, and as a driving force in the advancement of the organization.  Further, the committee should adopt an attitude of service to the individual, and approach their work with a belief that each member of the board wants to achieve and be successful.

This committee should include the strongest and most qualified people affiliated with your organization.  It must be empowered to redefine the caliber of board members you seek, and how they are attracted and enlisted.  The committee must establish clear-cut expectations for members, and identify the resources and support to allow each individual to fully impact the realization of the organization’s mission.

As the committee continues its work throughout the year, it should be expected to review and foster the active engagement and participation of each board member.  In this manner, if an individual member consistently struggles to realize his or her full level of participation and their personal sense of achievement, it will be easier to have a forthright conversation about their continued volunteer leadership.

If this strategy seems drastic, consider the path more frequently chosen by too many organizations:  hoping things will change.   In our view, that’s not the way to build a great board of directors!

(click here to download FRM Issue No. 60)

Want to see more?  Read The Goettler Series  Volume 7: The Role of Trustees in Development