Five Secrets of High-Performing Nonprofit Boards

When a board is functioning at a high level, it can provide your nonprofit organization with strategy, focus and oversight. High-performing nonprofit boards advance your mission.

Here to prime your board for effectiveness are Mark Payne, leader of James Moore’s Nonprofit Services Team, and Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, founder and president of Stansbury Consulting.

Alyce Lee has coached hundreds of charity organizations as a Certified Fund Raising Executive and certified Master Trainer. The author of the weekly “Notes on Nonprofits” column in the Tallahassee Democrat – USA Today Network, Alyce Lee combines best practices, timely topics and more than 30 years of nonprofit experience related to board governance, strategic planning and fundraising.

Together, Mark and Alyce Lee discuss the five secrets of successful nonprofit boards and how to avoid common pitfalls.

Secret 1: Be visionary.

The first secret of a high-performing nonprofit board is that it is visionary. While your staff focuses on day-to-day operations that keep the lights on and programs running, the board should take the long view. An effective board thinks about where the organization should be years down the road and strategizes how to get there.

“If the board is not focused on the future, then really nobody is,” Alyce Lee said.

Too often, however, board members fall into the trap of scrutinizing management and digging into the details of daily operations. A quick read-through of your board’s meeting minutes can reveal whether it’s focusing on the big picture or getting caught up in minutiae.

A high-performing nonprofit board helps bring strategic plans to fruition, provides accountability, assists in fundraising efforts and builds community relationships. But thinking on this level may not come naturally to board members, especially if they’ve served on other boards that didn’t take a leadership-oriented approach.

“They may be very well intentioned,” Alyce Lee said. “But if they don’t really know what a high-performing board does or what one really looks like, it may be difficult for them to see beyond the habits they’ve picked up from previous board experiences.”

Conducting a self-assessment every two years is one way for the board to check its performance against target benchmarks.

Secret 2: Be proactive.

Successful boards are forward-looking. They assess where your nonprofit needs will be six, 12 or 24 months in the future and what must happen for the organization to meet its goals. Low-performing nonprofit boards, in contrast, are reactionary. They fail to anticipate obstacles or crises, leaving the organization with fewer solutions when problems arise. Being reactive also leads to missed opportunities.

Take a look at board meeting agendas to determine whether your board is proactive or reactive.

“If the board meeting agendas are all about committee reports – what they did last month or three months ago, as opposed to where they’re going – that’s an indication that the board is spending a lot of time talking about things that have already happened,” Alyce Lee said.

The board should work with the CEO to identify the organization’s top challenges and opportunities and structure priorities accordingly.

Secret 3: Make sure board meetings are engaging.

According to Alyce Lee, the number one pitfall of nonprofit boards is dull meetings. High-powered people are energized by real challenges, not trivia.

“It really makes a difference if those board meetings have a tight agenda, if members are engaged and the discussion is well facilitated by the chair who’s leading the meeting,” Alyce Lee said. “There should be an opportunity for board members to talk with each other, as opposed to listening to reports.”

Ensure that each meeting has at least one open-ended question on the agenda. This question should be about how something happening in the world that could affect the nonprofit. Some examples:

  • How is rising inflation going to impact your nonprofit’s strategic goals?
  • How are changes in the economy impacting the way your donors might choose to give?
  • How will an upcoming election affect your organization?

“These kinds of big questions get the board members talking about something that really matters,” Alyce Lee said.

Secret 4: Educate new nonprofit board members.

When you onboard new staff, they receive training to help them thrive in your organization. Educating nonprofit board members can have the same effect. They might be highly respected professionals at the top of their field. But keep in mind that nonprofits can be more complex than for-profit businesses. Enlightening board members on news in the nonprofit sector and issues pertinent to your organization is another step to empower your board to perform at a high level.

“You’re feeding your board the information they need to be the best board that they can be,” Alyce Lee said.

There are myriad ways for helping your board stay informed. Bring in experts to lead a workshop during a board meeting. Send board members to relevant conferences. And share white papers that will keep them in the know.

Alyce Lee is also an advocate for setting term limits for nonprofit board members.

“It’s hard to maintain that level of high performance over an extended period,” she said. “Plus, rotating your board members brings in new voices, faces and knowledge from different parts of the community. You want to make sure the board really reflects the people that you’re serving.”

Secret 5: Recruit nonprofit board members who can commit to your organization.

It’s easy to become dazzled by a potential board member’s talent or prestige. But consider first whether they have the time and willingness to invest in your organization. Alyce Lee suggests recruiting board members for whom your nonprofit will be one of the top three volunteer commitments. This keeps their level of engagement from getting too diluted.

“If someone is serving on 10 boards, you’re not going to get their full attention,” Alyce Lee said.

Find board members who are willing to learn about the complexities of the nonprofit sector and will work with other board members as a cohesive team. (And don’t forget these other steps to take when selecting board members.)

If you need expert advice on creating your board, James Moore’s nonprofit CPAs can also guide you through a selection process that fits your organization’s needs.


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