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Enlist a Nonprofit Board That Champions You

Board Member Difficulty and Collaboration
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What’s the hardest job in the world?

Air traffic controller? Miner? First responder? Parenting toddlers?

As hard as those jobs are, if you’re a nonprofit CEO or Executive Director, you face a uniquely tough challenge too.

What’s that?

Engaging a leadership team—specifically, your board of directors.

A leadership team that’s unpaid, that you report to, and that could fire you.

Recruiting, managing, and leading a group of volunteers who have the power to make or break your nonprofit (and your career) is a big responsibility.

It’s one of the most complex and challenging endeavors a CEO or Executive Director will have.

So, how do you build a happy, healthy, thriving board of directors? I’ve outlined a winning recipe and step-by-step process below.

But before we get into that, how can you replace an existing board? The first step is to conduct a board survey, also known as a board assessment.

How to change the board you have with a simple board survey

You know all those things that are frustrating you, like board members not sharing their contacts, not coming to meetings, or not having any fundraising knowledge? Create a board survey. This is where you can get all that out in the open so you have the runway to start changing it. It’s board-led, which means you get to say, “We heard you loud and clear that we’re lacking in __________ (for example, board diversity, fundraising fluency) and to support that we’re going to _______ (for example, prioritize recruitment, offer training).” It shows the gaps, charts a course, and holds board members accountable. They can rate themselves individually or rate the board as a whole. The survey can cover participation, engagement, fundraising knowledge, strategic direction—you name it.

You can find board assessment templates everywhere. Or grab a sample board assessment here.

Now you’re ready to build your board.

How to build the nonprofit board of your dreams

The foundation for a great board begins with clear expectations of board service. You wouldn’t accept a job without knowing the job description. Your board needs the same!

The best way to set your board members up for success is to provide a robust board agreement detailing the expectations of service, from giving to volunteering to attending events.

The four critical pieces you must include in this agreement are: 1) giving expectations, 2) fundraising they’ll be expected to perform on behalf of the organization, 3) program or event attendance, and 4) committee participation. Download a sample board agreement here.

1. Identify and recruit the right board members

It can be tempting to fantasize about big-name powerhouses writing large checks. In reality, those people may not have any meaningful connection to your cause.

You likely want a board member willing to engage and connected to your cause, with a network of key contacts, the capacity to give, prior board experience, and specialized expertise. How do you make it happen?

Step 1: List who you want to serve

Who are the current or up-and-coming movers and shakers in your community and your sector? Be “board-aware” with your board, donors, and volunteers. Network with your chamber of commerce, leadership and civic groups, and professional associations. Explore board lists from other nonprofits in your community.

Step 2: Determine accessibility

Do you currently have access to them, and if not, who can make the introduction? Another board member, a donor, or a community leader? Do you have mutual connections on LinkedIn that can help you get the introduction?

Step 3: Gauge commitment

Do potential board members care about your cause? Nothing trumps passion. Their passion will open the doors to their network, inspire them to make stretch gifts, and keep them engaged.

Step 4: Outline the expectations

Next to their passion for your cause, the single greatest predictor of your success with a new board member is their clear understanding of the responsibilities of board service. Too often, we fail in this regard. Eager to fill a vacant seat or secure a well-known name, we fail to communicate expectations of service, especially fundraising expectations, and we end up with a recipe for churn and failure.

Step 5: Cultivate

Not every board prospect will be ready to commit when you are. Most won’t. You’ve got to cultivate their engagement in your cause so you’re next in line and able to move them to your board as soon as their commitment allows.

Step 6: Interview potential board members

Let’s say you’ve identified a strong board prospect. You’ve taken critical next steps to further engage them in your mission and are ready to discuss board service. Congratulations! The stage you’re in now is a lot like being on a job interview. You know how everyone says, “Interview them as much as they’re interviewing you?” The same is true here. So, what kind of questions do you need to ask them?

  1. Why does our mission resonate with you?
  2. Can you share some of your previous experiences in board leadership?
  3. What skills, connections, resources, and expertise can you contribute to our organization?
  4. Do you have any concerns or questions about board service?
  5. What is inspiring you to serve? What do you hope to get out of board service?
  6. How much time can you commit to meetings and serving the mission every month?
  7. What motivates you?
  8. What were your expectations from the nonprofits where you served previously as a board member?
  9. Are you willing to make a stretch financial commitment? While on our board, will you make our organization one of your top three philanthropic commitments?
  10. How important is it for you to interact socially with other members?

2. Onboard your board

You’ve invested a lot of time to identify and cultivate great leaders to serve on your board.

Now comes the most important part: onboarding them for success. An effective onboarding process will help your new board members feel more valued, better understand their role, and increase their productivity and performance, resulting in increased engagement.

A board orientation is not the same thing as onboarding. A new board member orientation is an event during the onboarding process. Onboarding is the process used to assimilate new board members as leaders of your organization.

Dig into the five steps to onboard new board members here.

3. Make board service meaningful and fun

Many board members serve to enhance their professional resumes or network with other board members. This is why it’s critical you give them a chance to enjoy each other socially. Tap into their motivations and give them rewards, recognition, and special privileges.

4. Train your board

Now that you’ve got them on board, it’s time to mobilize them, train them, coach them, and support them.

If your board members don’t have any experience in fundraising, you may need to educate them on your revenue streams and the role fundraising plays in your organization.

One of the most significant sources of friction between boards and staff is often fundraising. To help engage your board members in fundraising, there are some very clear Do’s and equally important Don’ts! To help you navigate this oh-so-important arena and set yourself up for success, grab this cheat sheet and sample board member agreement template to set up your board for fundraising success.

Parting tips

Remember, to build the nonprofit board of your dreams think of it like a journey, not a sprint.

It takes time, patience, and a lot of cultivation. Think of your board as a garden—you need to sow the right seeds, nurture them, and give them the resources they need to thrive. With clear expectations, robust onboarding, and continuous support, you’ll have board members who are passionate advocates for your cause.

Keep them engaged, make their service meaningful, and celebrate their contributions. When you invest in your board, you’re investing in the future of your organization. So go ahead, start planting those seeds, and watch your board—and your mission—flourish.

Has your organization been able to build the nonprofit board of your dreams? We’d love to hear your success story in the comments below!

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