It is probably fair to say that nonprofit board members desire to do a good job supporting their nonprofit and its leader. That includes board members who only attend a meeting periodically as well as the ones that try to assist in every way possible including guiding staff in their tasks (which is the job of the Executive Director!). It’s easy to feel upset with board members who fail to carry out their roles properly as this can cause frustration to nonprofit leaders who don’t feel properly supported.
Certainly new and even returning board members are doing what they believe is best to assist the nonprofit organization. Community volunteers who join a board bring their own areas of expertise to the board table in hopes they can make a valuable contribution; however, the majority have never received formal training in board governance. And what a board member doesn’t know can be hurtful to relationships with staff and possibly even harmful to the nonprofit in some situations.
Listed below are fundamental areas where board members may need training so they can fully understand their responsibilities in guiding the nonprofit as well as its working relationship with the staff.
- Boards Govern: One of the most important keys for meaningful direction is to remember that the role of the board of directors is to govern, not manage, the nonprofit. Managing is the role of the nonprofit Executive Director (ED) or Chief Operating Officer (CEO). To govern means to carry out responsibilities as the legal guardian of the nonprofit organization. Each board member is accountable for the financial and organizational well-being of the nonprofit. They work with the nonprofit leader to adapt a strategic plan, budget, and other ruling policies and procedures. Once these guidelines are established, it is the role of the ED/CEO to put the plans into action by developing specific programs and activities needed to meet the stated goals.
- Boards Function as a Collective: Many board members do not realize that a board functions as one collective body to govern the nonprofit. No individual board member, including board officers, has the authority to act alone on behalf of the nonprofit. Board committees are a part of the team as well, and should not take action on behalf of the nonprofit without specific board approval. To maintain accountability, a board of directors should develop clear policies pertaining to the actions of board members which (1) define their scope of authority, and (2) offer a comprehensive guide for making board decisions. Providing structure to address routine as well as unexpected issues and concerns helps the board to function more cohesively.
- Boards Determine Why: The board clearly defines the nonprofit’s mission and provides guidance as to what the nonprofit needs to do to best serve their clients. The ED/CEO and staff then develop procedures and initiate activities, programs or other methods to reach the client base. All board actions and activities should focus on promoting and supporting these specific mission goals.
- Boards Determine Outcome: Determining outcomes that give the nonprofit credibility and success in the community is a crucial concern for the board. Every nonprofit needs to show some type of outcome in how effectively it communicates its mission and principles to the public. Outputs are the way the organization measures what it accomplishes within a given period of time. For instance, how many people are housed, how many vaccinations are provided, and so on. Results from the nonprofit’s programs and activities are evaluated by the board to assess how well these outputs measure characteristics such as attitudes, behaviors, or circumstances, as well as the effectiveness of the current programs and activities in general.
- Boards Set Policy: Policies supplement the nonprofit’s articles of incorporation and bylaws by establishing a set of rules and procedures, such as the Board Member Agreement, Code of Conduct, Conflict of Interest, Document Retention and Destruction, Gift Acceptance, Nondiscrimination, and Whistleblower policies. Some nonprofits might need additional policies depending on their mission. Once in place, the ED/CEO and staff initiate procedures to ensure these policies are followed by the board and in all areas of the nonprofit organization.
Training a nonprofit’s board members is time and effort well spent. The more they understand the complexities of board and staff roles, and the more insight and governing expertise they acquire, the better prepared they will be to act skillfully as guardians of the nonprofit and supporters of its leaders. Spokes offers its full-day Board Academy as well as individual trainings for specific boards upon request. Give us a call to discuss your board training needs.
What is the Meaning of Board Governance?
The Difference Between Governance and Management