Nonprofit boards play a crucial role in the sustainability of organizations. They are expected to be forward thinkers, policy makers, and resource managers—yet board development, a vital component to successful boards, often happens as an afterthought. So just how should our organizations maximize their efforts to create engaged, passionate boards?

It’s not a sprint, but a marathon

In the nonprofit world we sometimes lose sight of the fact that we should work to create organizations for generations to follow. Through this lens, what can you do differently in board development? Too often I hear stories of our partner organizations scrambling to fill board seats. Their bylaws specify a minimum number of members and they need someone, or multiple someones, to fill seats being vacated. There has been little focus on growing leadership from inside the organization. When Marc Smiley of Solid Ground Consulting facilitated a board workshop last March in Menomonie, he shared his concentric circle illustration of building a leadership structure.

The board lies at the center of the illustration, with committees, trustees or advisors, organization supporters, and people who know the organization appearing as circles rippling outward from the center. In a healthy organization, the lines between the circles are dashed, not solid, and people move freely among the layers. This idea is as important in growing leaders (who might follow the path supporters-committee-board) as it is in keeping leaders engaged (where a path might be board-committee-trustee). Following this model should alleviate fears around enacting term limits because you would have a process in place for keeping great contributors engaged.

The continuum

Moving supporters along this continuum is fairly straightforward. Marc offers this advice for growing leaders:

  1. Recruit for a specific task
  2. Upgrade to a project
  3. Evolve to leadership

The concept of recruiting for a specific task fits well with what we see in volunteering today. People have many options for their leisure time—family, recreation, entertainment—that they do not want to be stuck on a committee for the rest of their life. By identifying key tasks within a larger project that need to be accomplished, you can tap someone with the skills needed and assure them that there is a definitive start and endpoint for the task. As trust builds and they realize that your organization keeps its promises, then they will more freely give of their time.

Once the volunteer commits to additional time and responsibility, he or she can move on to project leadership. At this point, the volunteer will probably have enough interaction with board members to allow the board to take note of leadership styles and strengths. This relationship allows easy identification of new potential board members when a vacancy and identified need arises.

Creating the right board culture

There is a management truism that culture beats strategy, and nonprofit boards are not exempt from this. Serving on a board of directors occurs in addition to a variety of other roles board members play in their daily lives. Therefore, it is important to create an organizational culture that they want to be part of. We know that boards have the following functions:

  • Strategic direction
  • Fiscal oversight
  • Leadership development
  • Resource development

But are any of these reasons why someone would wish to join a leadership position within your organization? Probably not. They want to be involved because they support your cause and they want to make a difference… and maybe something else. What’s the “something else”? You will not know until you ask. A simple approach is a board member agreement, a sample of which can be found here. This a different from a traditional board member expectations, which address what the organization expects of board members. Instead, it asks what the board member expects from serving on the board. At first glance this may not seem like much of a difference, but this is critical to creating the right culture. Here’s an illustration to help make sense of this difference.

I serve on a board of a statewide nonprofit. We have a fellow board member who is employed with the UW System and she need to work on projects of statewide assistance from ideation through execution to count towards her evaluation. With this knowledge, the board can make sure that these requirements are being met. In this example, this board member not only participates because she believes in the cause, but also because it helps fulfill work requirements. Both are equally important.

Examples from Wisconsin

Positively Pewaukee does a great job of evolving leadership. Elaine Kroening, the organization’s executive director, shares how through regular conversations with volunteers she can learn if they have leadership aspirations. If they do, she and the board work to get the volunteer a broad range of experience in the Four Points™ of the Main Street America™ approach so that the volunteer can become an effective leader.

In Osceola, Germaine Ross and her board recognized the need to engage younger community members. They intentionally set out to move people along the continuum, which has resulted in bringing on younger board members. At the same time, they intentionally focused on creating the right culture with the Osceola Area Chamber and Main Street Program and created a board mentor program to share institutional knowledge with the next generation of leaders.

Putting it all together

This, of course, is a high-level overview of an important process in creating sustainable organizations. There are other components to creating an engaging board, including:

  • Board recruitment process
  • Offering training and continuing education for members
  • Evaluating the board and individual members
  • Regularly recognizing contributions of board members

Remember, if you are not doing any of this currently, change happens over time. Don’t think you need to make wholesale changes in a rapid fashion. Build board discussions around these suggestions and decide as a group how you wish to proceed. If you have questions, feel free to e-mail me.