5 Basics to Forming a Nonprofit Board

Board Meeting
And the meeting will now be called to order…. (via communitylandscotland)

Boards are a regular feature of nonprofit life. They are in the for-profit world, too. But in a nonprofit, where budget and resources are frequently scarce–especially in the beginning–your board can be a major asset. Granting agencies realize this. They know a great board can make all the difference between a nonprofit that putters along, and one that fulfills its mission with a roar. Which is why there is grant money for well thought out board development programs and retreats. There are a lot of things to know about establishing and working with a board, but here are the key things I can’t overemphasize (having served on two and worked with as many).

The board is the boss

It’s typically a big and positive step forward when you establish a nonprofit board. But as one friend once said of the resultL “Well, they (the board) can now fire me. And I can’t do that to them.” This is true. Boards can fire staff, but the reverse is not true. While that may seem a rather disheartening thought, the fact is, there’s a reason the board is boss.

Board members are legally and financially responsible for their organization’s management. Even the most do-nothing board is responsible for making sure that the organization complies with state laws and regulations, and maintains the tax-exempt status. Which leads us to . . .

The board of “the available” vs “the able”

Founding boards typically reflect the journey of the founder and the organization up until that point. They’re typically made up of friends, colleagues, the founder’s inner circle. But make no mistake, boards take time and commitment. This is especially with lean organizations that are going to depend on board members to be more than a governing body. I’ve served on a couple of boards, and the understanding was clear: I was expected to assist, with more than just financial resources, connections, and expertise. I was expected to lead projects shoulder-to-shoulder with the founder and staff, and be able as well as willing to show up and work a shift or two. This became even more important as core founding members began to term out of the organization.

Who’s on the board?

Boards come in all sizes and demographics depending on the organization. Every board member needs to have time, passion, affinity for the organization’s mission. But a board is always better off when it includes a lawyer, a financial brain, and these days, someone with strategic and digital communications chops. If their professional practice focuses on what the organization does, so much the better. It’s also very useful for a board to have organizational strategists in the mix. People who can see the big picture, appreciate the vision and mission of the organization, and help set a course for the future. This is where growing your board becomes as much of a strategic organizational goal as fundraising, or membership and audience development. (Which is why board development, retreats, and education are considered important enough to fund.)

How large should the board be?

The answer to that question varies highly and you’ll find lots of answers depending on what you do. But at a minimum, your board needs to have a chair, a vice chair, a secretary, and a treasurer. Beyond that, it’s up to the organization to decide how large a board needs to be. Although I will say that bigger is not always better, but you also don’t want to have a board so small that making quorum is always an anxiety inducing part of every meeting.

Work with your board

This might seem like a really obvious point, but I cannot overemphasize it. Too many organizations do not truly involve, empower, or leverage their boards. Part of that is setting expectations, but part of that is also just simply asking them. After all, that’s why you asked them to join your board, right? At a minimum, your board should be actively involvedin fundraising, advocating for, and raising awareness of the organization. This is why you need the board of the able vs. the available. It takes skill, confidence, and desire to do all of that.

They should be crystal clear on the organization’s mission, and what it takes to make the mission a reality so they can advocate appropriately. If you have a board member who is unaware of your organization’s programs, financial issues, or can’t name the key staff, then you have a problem. (On the other hand, the answer isn’t to have the board be involved in the daily workings of the organization–a subject for another post.)

If you’ve served on a board or worked with a board, please chime in, because you know that this post is just the tip of the iceberg. Tell us, what should cause advocates know about boards, especially in the early years?