Top 5 Ways to Optimize Board Relations

Board of directors having a meeting with one woman writing on a white board

Halt, Buzas & Powell is proud to celebrate its 50th birthday in 2019! We’ve been honored to partner with dozens of wonderful nonprofits over our five decades in business, learning from them even as we help them grow and thrive. As part of our Focus on 50 anniversary celebration, we’re sharing a few of the insights we’ve gathered over the years, beginning with strategies to help nonprofits optimize relations with their boards of directors.

The board of directors plays a critical role in every nonprofit’s stability and growth. While this importance is consistent, the degree to which boards are effective in helping organizations run smoothly and successfully pursue their respective missions can vary immensely. What makes the difference between a high-performing board and one that struggles to fulfill its responsibilities and drive an organization’s optimal performance?

A number of factors influence the board’s ability to do its job well, including challenges inherent to the specific organization. However, there are also themes that emerge time after time, across nonprofits of every size and type. To optimize the board’s potential to support the organization it serves, nonprofit leaders should take care to address these five critical needs.

  1. Board training and education. Serving on a nonprofit board of directors is a big responsibility; it is unfair to expect members to fulfill their roles without providing adequate training to guide them in this important position. Board members should undergo an initial orientation and education to familiarize them with specific tasks they are charged with; the organization’s mission; the nuances of fundraising to meet organizational goals; and the challenges, opportunities and issues the board is likely to face in the near future. In addition, leaders should conduct annual trainings focused on board roles and responsibilities, including a segment addressing their legal obligations regarding mission and purposes.
  2. Updated board documents. It is critical that board members have access to current articles of incorporation, bylaws and all other board documents. Members should be intimately familiar with the language specifying the organization’s purpose. They should have a clear understanding of everything in the documents, including rules covering the board, and know how the rules apply to their actions as board members. Is it acceptable for board members to make media statements? If so, what are the limits on media communication? Do term limits apply to board membership? In most cases, imposing term limits is a policy that benefits the organization and any limits should be enforced as written.
  3. Clear expectations. Board members need to know exactly what they are expected to accomplish. Do they need to cultivate volunteers, recruit future board members or promote the organization within a certain setting? Is there a fundraising goal attached to the member’s position on the board? What constitutes an outstanding board member in the context of the organization – which types of personal and professional contributions does the organization value most highly? What is the board’s fundraising culture (i.e. norms, values, practices)? Consider establishing a board member letter of agreement – or job description – that explicates the central obligation to advance the mission of both the board and the organization.
  4. Status checks. Organizations should implement a regular program of periodic reviews for individual board members’ performance as well as the overall performance of the board. Reviews should address performance in regard to the organization’s policies, programs and success in advancing its primary mission. These checkpoints provide valuable insight that can not only help the board stay on track and continually improve performance, but also serve as an opportunity to offer feedback, encouragement lpjiand additional training where appropriate. In addition to ongoing review points, retiring board members should participate in an exit process to be sure all bases are covered and establish strategies for keeping the individual involved in other capacities.
  5. Board enablement. The nonprofit board of directors is an integral part of the organization, while at the same time an entity that stands apart from it. With this dual identity, a board of directors requires adequate scope to act in its separate role to perform oversight and governance. While strong communication and partnership between board and staff are critical for the organization’s long-term success, it is equally important to maintain sufficient space between board and staff for the board to be able to function independently. In practice, this means allowing the board to have closed meeting time without organization staff present; nonprofit staff should participate in meetings on an as-needed basis.

Encouraging optimal performance from your organization’s board is a nuanced endeavor that involves both art and chemistry. Each organization is different, but a proactive approach to these five issues will position your board for greater success. To learn more strategies for optimizing board relations, please contact the nonprofit professionals at HBP.