“Populating the board with people with the right fit” is a top challenge for nonprofits, according to more than half of the leaders who responded to The Nonprofit Pulse: A Leadership Study from accounting firm Marks Paneth.
So, what is “the right fit?”
That depends on the needs of your organization. And, as nonprofit leaders know all too well, your needs continually ebb and flow, expand and contract, shift and shift again, depending on the phase your agency is in.
However, there is one “constant,” regardless of your organization’s phase, and that is: Board members need to be more than just ink on your letterhead. They need to be active participants in executing your mission. Simply having a passion for your purpose just doesn’t cut it.
And, while there may not be a one-size-fits-all when it comes to board composition, there are certain skills you’ll want at the table during various stages of your development. Here are some ideas about whom and what you need and when:
In your early years, you’ll want board members who are operational. And, because you’re likely small, with limited resources, you should ask individuals to join your board who can contribute their professional services. For example, ask a CPA who’s willing to donate 990 services, and a journalist/writer who can help develop and spread your message, and an HR professional who can assist in setting internal policies.
Also, you’ll need people on your board with skills that align to your mission. If you’re running a health and social care agency, for example, you should have medical professionals on your board, like doctors, nurses, and counselors, who clearly understand your community’s need and your mission, and can help execute.
On the Grow
As you grow, your board’s focus will shift from operational to strategic. Should you expand? If so, how? By extending your current services to a wider demographic or expanding your service offerings to your existing population? If you are expanding your demographic or geographic reach, you need to have board representation from those communities, because your board makeup should always reflect the population you serve.
You might need to build a new or purchase/lease an existing building to accommodate your growing staff or support your broadening reach. Consider having the commercial real estate and/or construction industry represented on your board.
Are you in the market for more sophisticated technology to manage a growing donor base? Will you govern your technology infrastructure in-house or outsource it? Having IT know-how on your board will be essential to this strategic decision making.
All of these growth initiatives, and more, require money. Consequently, at this stage your board members should be professionals who can support capital campaigns and activities.
Finally, this is the phase in your organization’s growth during which you should consider term limits for board members. When you were smaller, the notion of limiting the amount of time a board member serves probably didn’t apply, but now that you’re growing, you should add term limits to your bylaws. Most experts agree that a three-year term, with the option to renew for another three-year term, is an appropriate length of time for individuals to serve on a nonprofit board.
Your organization is established now, so your board members need to be, too. They should be seasoned, well connected in the community, have financial backing, and be willing and able to bring recognition for and focus to your nonprofit.
And, because this is often the stage in which mergers take place, individuals who have merger/acquisition experience and who serve on multiple boards would be a useful addition. In Marks Paneth’s study, nearly a third of nonprofit leaders expect notable merger activity in their sectors during the next five years, so this is a topic with increasing buzz and legitimacy.
Turn the Tables
We’ve talked about what you need out of your nonprofit board, but what do board members need from you? As leader of your organization, you must establish and communicate very clear expectations of time commitment, roles and responsibilities, and board member fundraising and giving. The more transparent you are, the more productive, engaged, and committed your board will be.
For more ideas about building trust and transparency with your board, check out our recorded webinar, We’re All in This Together: Developing Successful Relationships with Your Board.