Building the Best Board for Your Nonprofit

Glenda Hicks, a BoardSource Certified Governance Trainer, revealed the secrets to creating the best board for your nonprofit organization during a special program at Foundation Center Atlanta. In order to have a strong, effective group of board members, the executive director should always be on the lookout for promising candidates and stay closely involved in the process of hiring, educating, and diversifying the board.

picture of diverse board members in conversation

Using BoardSource’s Board Building Cycle, Ms. Hicks highlighted nine steps to strengthen your organization’s board:

Step 1: Identify

This initial step identifies the weaknesses in your current board. What skills, knowledge, perspective, and connections are needed to implement your strategic plan? Your board members should be able to provide leadership, guidance, and information. At this point, do not forget the importance of diversity in the nonprofit sector, especially for grantmakers. To better represent the community and the groups your organization serves, look for diversity in potential board members, particularly with respect to age, race, gender, and disabilities. It can also be important to seek board members with different personal and professional backgrounds to bring a range of perspectives to the organization.

Step 2: Cultivate

Knowing the areas you want to strengthen in your board, look for organizations that have people who do what you need. Ask your current board members, employees, volunteers, etc., if they can help identify board candidates with the characteristics you are seeking. Always be on the lookout for new board members, get them interested in your organization, and keep them informed of your progress. Waiting to find a new board member when you are desperate for one may not result in the best choice.

Step 3: Recruit

Recruitment involves discussing specifics of the position during the interview process. The director should clearly state the ideal expectations and responsibilities of the potential board member and not give the bare minimum requirements. It is important to be clear with your candidates that your board is active and impactful and that any new members are expected to participate fully. During this process, it is also important to entertain their questions and make sure they are prepared to serve in this role.

Step 4: Orient

The orientation process creates a foundation of knowledge for the new board member. This should be a formal process where the member can be introduced to the organization, its programs and clients, and the duties associated with the board member’s position. The director can use this opportunity to explain the bylaws, mission statement, financial statements, and to share a list of board members and committees.

Step 5: Involve

Find an appropriate committee for your new board member. Talk with them to learn about their interests. Remember - what a member does for a day job may not be what he or she would like to spend more time doing for your organization. Ultimately, engage all of your board members and let them get to know each other. Having good relationships between board members helps to hold all of them accountable to each other and to the organization.

Step 6: Educate

The education process should be ongoing. Keep the board up-to-date with new information in your organization’s field, as well as with new changes to your organization itself. Do not hide difficulties the organization or its employees may be facing; problems should be engaged, not avoided.

Step 7: Evaluate

The board should view improvement as an ongoing endeavor. Distribute yearly formal evaluations for yourself and the board. Have the board assess its own performance and discuss ways in which future performance can be improved. Also encourage board members to assess their individual contributions.

Step 8: Rotate

Consider rotating board members by enforcing term limits. While serving a term, rotate members between different committees—this provides a better understanding of the different parts of the organization. The director should always think that any member could be a potential board chair.

Step 9: Celebrate

Finally, take some time to step back and appreciate all the work you, your board, and your organization have accomplished. Show gratitude for effort and progress, and let the board know their work is valued. 

Want more of Glenda's advice? Read "3 Keys to Strengthening Board Engagement" at Philanthropy Front and Center Atlanta.

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