What if an Alien Took Away Your Board?

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By Ann Marie Thigpen, Director, Center for Nonprofit Leadership, Adelphi University

This spring, I moderated NPCC’s Pathways to Excellence workshop on Governance, one in a series of eight sessions focused on the Eight Key Areas of Nonprofit Excellence that guide the Nonprofit Excellence Awards program. The panel featured Jess Dannhauser, President and CEO of Graham Windham (2014 winner), and Gregg Bishop, Board Chair of Red Hook Initiative (2012 winner).

Here are some takeaways:

If an alien landed and took away your board, what would the organization miss most?

  • Board members ask the simple, but critical questions. Like: are our programs meeting our goals?
  • Its biggest cheerleaders. Board members should be able to speak to anyone about the organization and its work.
  • Their financial contributions.

Keeping your board members engaged

  • Ensure connectivity between board committees – when board members get involved in the essential work of the organization in a healthy way, it makes room for relationship-building.
  • Create opportunities for senior management to interact with the board. Long gone are the days where it was the executive director’s exclusive responsibility to communicate with board members. This practice is a real change in the field.
  • Develop a job description outlining clear expectations (e.g. board members are required to attend at least two program events per year).
  • Conduct year-end board member reviews with the governance committees.
  • Keep board members informed about programs, staffing, finances, and fundraising by sending detailed weekly updates. This way, board members are oriented to operations, have a sense of what the day-to-day looks like, and feel prepared to engage in planning for the future.
  • Keep the mission alive with the board by dedicating time at board meetings for mission moments (examples of the organization is making an impact on a real person, family, issue, cause, etc. ).

Helping the board help you

  • All board members have to fundraise, but some say they’re not comfortable fundraising – provide training for board members and equip them with the tools they need to become successful recruiters and askers
  • Dedicate some board meeting time to discuss successful and unsuccessful solicitations

Making sure board members understand critical financial info

  • Boil down complicated financial information to dashboards that are easy to read. Informed board members are more effective.
  • Encourage board members to understand strategies and risk associated with financial decision-making. Board members should know the investments in the budget and how they relate to the mission.
  • Go beyond presenting audit findings and explain what they actually mean. No matter the size of your organization, if you aren’t having difficult conversations about finances, then people might not understand what’s going on. Have these tough conversations – they’re healthy!

Fostering a strong and positive relationship between executive director and the board

  • Executive Director has formal and informal relationships with the Board Chair.
  • Encourage board members to break bread outside the board room. Create opportunities for social interaction.
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