30 tips for effective nonprofit board leadership
When you are fundraiser like me, you routinely are asked to join nonprofit boards. In the last 4 weeks alone, I've been asked to join the leadership of 4 different organizations! I couldn't tell you how many times I've been asked the same question in the last 12 months, as I've lost track.
While some people have the capacity to serve on multiple boards, I simply don't. Particularly because I'm the new board president of the Development Executives Roundtable, a trade association for nearly 200 Bay Area fundraisers, representing organizations with combined budgets of approximately $1 billion. DER is an all-volunteer group, so we're a "working" board in the fullest sense of the term.
I recently posted a question on LinkedIn asking for advice as a first-term board president. Given how essential this role is to successful fundraising, I thought I'd share with you just some of the invaluable tips I received:
- Avoid micromanagement, while making sure you understand the big picture.
- Be passionate about your organization, making sure everyone you meet hears about your nonprofit frequently.
- Communicate clearly and frequently to the membership and the outside world.
- Develop a plan. If you don’t already perform strategic planning, start now. Establish a list of realistic and attainable goals, and make them happen.
- Develop individual board member agreements that specify what each member will contribute and what they can expect in terms of support and opportunities.
- Ensure all board members play a role in agency fundraising.
- Find 15 minutes on the agenda of each board meeting to either reflect upon a big picture trend or to learn about an issue that affects the work of the nonprofit.
- Find opportunities to expand the participation of regular members in big and small ways so they have a stake in the organization success.
- Have a strong treasurer who keeps true financial oversight.
- Hold monthly check-in calls with agency leadership to act as sounding board and provide coaching. Call all board members once per quarter and thank them for specific things they have done, checking in on their sense of engagement.
- If you ever decide to hire paid staff, make sure to establish a true partnership with the executive director, rather than a vertical relationship, and keep expectations realistic.
- In advance of board meetings, call key board members to check the pulse. Often important or sensitive matters will emerge in private that may not be suitable to be addressed in a larger context.
- Insure that all members of your board share a common vision for the organization.
- Keep organized records so when your term is done you can hand off information to your successor. Make sure that officers and committee chairs are doing the same.
- Develop patience. Learn how to smile when you really want to cry.
- Less is more. Doing the right 1-2 member-driven items is far more valuable than a laundry list of initiatives.
- Make sure there is a shared understanding of the importance of board development, and what support directors need to be successful.
- Make sure there is an engaging and challenging conversation on the agenda for every board meeting and that it is well framed.
- Make sure you have a clear understanding of what you were elected to do and what you are bringing to the table.
- Review the year and look at what worked and what could use improvement
- Run effective meetings. Have an agenda, with times, and follow it.
- Strengthen collaborations with other organizations in your sector.
- Succession planning is critical. Have board officers and committee chairs take the lead in scouting for successors.
- Use the board executive committee to preview of the full board meeting agenda and really road test it to work out kinks.
- Weed out the people who have nothing better to do than to contribute through negativity or simply want something to put on their resume.
- When chairing a meeting, find ways to draw in people who don’t always get a chance to speak or who are newer to the board.
- When people’s terms on the board expire, find ways to hold on to them in some capacity if they contributed a lot: perhaps by forming an advisory group?
- You need a process person and a cheerleader on the board. Decide which you are and then find a partner to play the other role for the organization.
- Your primary market is your membership. Just as in any other business, you must assess the needs of your market.
- Recommended books: The Best of Board Cafe, Great Boards for Small Groups, Heroic Leadership, Nonprofit Board Answer Book, Basic Principles of Policy Governance, Boards that Make a Difference, Good to Great and The Social Sector, The Source, and Leaders Who Make a Difference.