Is Your Board as Effective as it Can Be?

| by Tom McGuire

As we wrap up our focus on boards, I want to paraphrase Judy Collins’ 1970’s hit song:  I’ve looked at boards from both sides now.  Over the past 30 years, I have held a number of staff positions in which (like many Philanthropybiz readers), I reported to a board of directors. Also, like many of our readers, I have served as a member of several nonprofit boards. What have these complementary experiences taught me about boards – and, in particular, about creating a strong board that works effectively with staff?

Let me comment briefly on three crucial aspects of a nonprofit board: size, membership profile, and committee assignment. Readers may disagree with my conclusions, and I welcome their differing points of view.  Likewise, readers may feel that other policies of the traditional board are worth discussion – frequency of meetings, length of terms, and so forth – and I encourage their additions to my list and their comments.

First, size.  In an anecdote that is most likely apocryphal, Lincoln is purported to have answered the question, “How long should a person’s legs be?” with the observation, “Long enough to reach the ground.” Similarly, the size of the nonprofit board should be large enough (…or small enough) to get the job done.  In my experience, the size of a typical community organization’s board is between 15 and 20 members (granted, large national institutions and universities are exceptions to this observation). I have come to believe that in many cases, this number is simply too large for the most effective use of the board’s overall resources.

Many nonprofits (staff leaders and even boards themselves) seem to have accepted the fact that there is always a percentage of their members who just don’t seem to be engaged.  Or, to put it more positively, that there is a segment of the board that usually carries most of the responsibility. Aside from the obvious question, “Why is this the case?,” nonprofits should consider whether it is possible to limit the size of their board to a group that is very carefully chosen and clearly focused on efficiency in governance and operations. For example, if its by-laws call for a 20-member board, many organizations will dutifully meet that quota, even if a strong 14- or 15-member group would work together more cohesively and effectively.

Second, membership profile. It has become increasingly common for many nonprofits to develop a “matrix” of talents and qualities that they will seek in prospective board members. Although these matrices will frequently include demographic and geographical considerations, they are primarily focused on professional background:  Do we have a lawyer on the board? An accountant or other financial expert? A communications or marketing professional? And so on.

While I don’t disagree with the need for a variety of professional talents, I do believe that too often the “matrix” takes precedence over the one essential requirement for board membership: unambiguous commitment to the organization and its mission. Once a nominating committee (or, as more and more organizations are calling them, a governance or board development committee) has determined a prospective member’s commitment, their professional background will only enhance the value that they bring to the organization.

Third, committee structure and service. We have all learned from experience and training that the most effective boards operate through committees. Likewise, we know that only a small number of committees are truly essential for proper governance:  nominating (or board development), finance (or budget, audit, investments) and personnel.  Beyond those fundamental areas, the number and focus of committees will depend on the nature of the organization:  programs, building and grounds, marketing and so forth.

But how does an effective board populate its committees?  I once served on a board and was never asked about my committee preference. After a year or so on an assigned committee, I asked (tactfully) if I might serve on another committee that was more in line with my interests.

The lesson of that experience (I continued to be assigned to same committee) was that board leaders should discuss areas of interest and preferences with every new member. Although service on any committee is rewarding when we are truly dedicated to the organization, I believe that a close alignment of a member’s personal interests with specific organizational needs will create even greater value for the nonprofit.

An effective board can be a nonprofit’s greatest asset – and conversely, a dysfunctional or disengaged board can be a potential liability. What are they most positive traits of your board…and where are the areas that need improvement?  Please join our conversation and share your own experiences.


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