Ann Marie Thigpen - Director of Center for Nonprofit Leadership at Adelphi University and former member of the Nonprofit Excellence Awards Selection Committee
In conversation about boards, we inevitably gravitate towards the “F” words – finance and fundraising, but an effective board’s role and responsibilities go far beyond a fiduciary one. At the “Pathways to Excellence in Governance” panel discussion, America Needs You and Graham Windham – 2015 and 2014 winners of NPCC’s New York Community Trust Nonprofit Excellence Awards respectively – looked at major components of board governance and shared their best practices.
The panel discussion featured Anita Fee Willis, Chief Development Officer, and Daron Greene, Board Member of America Needs You, and Jess Dannhauser, President and CEO of Graham Windham, and focused on five areas under the umbrella of governance. Here are some takeaways from the conversation:
Understand what the board needs from the organization and from the executive team. Create a meaningful experience for board members by developing and encouraging an environment where board members can do what they enjoy and are good at.
Ensure that the board knows the difference between governance and management. This means the board should enable the organization, not manage it.
Incorporate fresh perspectives on your board. Actively recruit new board members and consider instituting term limits or other ways to keep engagement at “fever pitch.”
Staff and Board Relationships
Build a culture where staff and board members have an interactive, yet appropriate relationship. Create situations where the board and staff can engage, work together, and have healthy discussions.
Establish clear expectations and boundaries. Create an organizational chart that defines staff and board relationships, and make sure there’s at least one team member that has a strong relationship with the board, staff, and executive team who can smooth communications and interactions.
The executive team should not fear the board. Keep communication lines open, relay “bad news” immediately along with potential solutions, and support board development by actively educating board members in areas they don’t know about the organization.
The board should understand both the business model and the mission. They should be asking “Are we going to balance the budget?”, but also “How are we servicing our clients?”.
The board should be thinking about long term plans and making bold decisions with the right level of risk. In order to be realistic about what the organization can and can’t do, the board needs to be financially literate.
As the executive team, take time to walk the board through the numbers, assess fundraising goals, and constantly communicate about assessment with the board. Provide a narrative to the board about the organization’s financial situation that is based in the numbers.
Reduce the board’s fear around fundraising. Have development staff be a clear, accessible resource to board members in order to ease the burden of fundraising on them.
Map out your board members’ networks. Be both thoughtful and intentional about how you leverage those networks, as it will shift the relationship with the board member and their network from a transactional one to a transformational one.
Hold the board to fundraising expectations. It’s important that board members are being held accountable for their responsibilities and are taking fundraising seriously.
Find creative ways to engage your board in fundraising opportunities. One way is to celebrate board members who are going above and beyond – competition is not a bad thing if the goal is to raise more money for the mission!
Incorporate both demographic and professional diversity on your board. This may mean reevaluating your give/get policy to include groups who have a lot to offer but can’t afford to give the minimum.
Consider non-governing boards (i.e. junior or advisory boards) or impact committees focused on key projects. These entities provide opportunities for your organization to incorporate more diversity of thought and perspective.
Above all, be intentional, strategic, and transparent about fostering diversity on your board. Consider having a professional recruiter as a board member to help recruit for the board.
Transparency and communications between your board, staff, and leadership are key to effective governance. Organization leaders should create a culture of accountability ensuring board members take their roles seriously and understand and meet expectations. At the same time, your board is a group of volunteers who are investing their time, money, thoughts, and networks in the organization, so treat them as valuable stakeholders. And always remember, a good board is a victory, not a gift.