reimagining the nonprofit board

A vivid imagination allows us to envision or mentally rehearse future possibilities.

As nonprofits nationwide consider how they can return from the torment inflicted by the coronavirus, reimagining the nonprofit board and governance provides an opportunity to refresh, recover, rebuild, and rethink. We all realize the importance of organizational governance, but should governance be better designed? We know governance is one of the most challenging concerns in the nonprofit sector. As we journey through these uncertain times, nonprofits must strengthen governance to be consistently effective. And, as leaders of a complex ecosystem — with many influences that shape organizations — our boards do not have a moment to lose. Those who step up their game will be better off and far more ready to confront the challenges – and opportunities – of the “new normal” than those who do not. 

The New Normal

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is creating the “new normal” for industries and sectors, in the last decade, the nonprofit world has been significantly “re-evolving” due to change. Uncertainty is the new norm. Old paradigms with divergent nonprofit, corporate, and government sectors are long gone. Instead, a complex, competitive marketplace has little resemblance to the sector’s original role as a safe, non-business opportunity for voices and social experimentation. Due to mergers, closures, and operational consolidations, nonprofits have reduced in size. Financing is more diverse and complex, requiring sophisticated abilities to find and manage funding. Although staffing is multigenerational, millennials are becoming the majority and have a significant impact on organizational culture. And, organizations with access to technology, data, and expertise have a clear advantage over those who do not. As we peer into the “now” and the future, what does this mean for your agency?

The Transformation Pathway

The nonprofit sector’s growing complexity and changing environment will call for board members with competencies and talents that mirror the for-profit and entrepreneurial world. A board that is passionate about its mission is not enough. We will need strategists, data experts and system-thinker, innovators, risk-takers, cross-sector collaborators, and folks cued into global and political trends. They must be financially literate, diverse, inclusive, and available. Board diversity matters. The board should reflect its community and target population and set the tone for being conscious about diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of the organizational culture. As Harvard Business Review (2019) states, “Board diversity matters but concentration on only one form of diversity is not enough. Social diversity….and professional diversity are both important for increasing diversity of perspectives represented on the board.” Presence will continue to be essential and can be met in different ways – through time, brokership, advocacy, financial contribution, and so forth. So, let’s not allow the board to put themselves in a corner. To transform is to engage, be heard, stand up, execute, and succeed!

Problem Solved

How do we get to this new place of reimagining the nonprofit board? The first step is to assess your organizational priorities and determine the short and long-term vision of what you want to accomplish. Do you have a governance structure that supports this vision and enables you to achieve it? Identify the missing components (skills, diversity, policies, committee structure, etc.) and prioritize them in terms of what is most important for you to become more successful and sustainable. These factors might not be mutually exclusive but speak to the broader issues that your board and organization should consider. Those skills and resources needed in January 2020 may not apply in the “new normal” of January 2021.

To begin the transformation of your board, there are several board performance assessment tools available. Board Source is widely regarded as the leader in assessing nonprofit board performance. The McKinsey & Company Nonprofit Board Self-Assessment Tool not only provides an evaluation but helps the board prioritize its movement forward. And finally, The National Council of Nonprofits provides a compilation of evaluation tools from various sources. 

As a result, your board will be more optimal and accountable and your nonprofit sustainable. It will enable agencies to achieve their vision and mission with greater impact, ensure resources are being used wisely and appropriately, engage diverse stakeholders in governance decision-making, and allow leaders to navigate successfully through complex systems and times.

With reimagining the nonprofit board, we can refresh our mindset with diverse views and ideas, re-think offerings, and envision the impossible by stepping out of the safe zone (if only occasionally), act with urgency through a collective approach, and rebuild resources to thrive – not just survive. 

We know there are no quick fixes or easy answers. Recovering from the coronavirus pandemic will be a long journey. But as nonprofits, we have no choice: our services are critical.  

My mom was a country girl from rural Virginia, and every time I was going through a crisis, she’d say, “Hey, you’ve got this, girl!”  

Okay! We’ve got this!

Nonprofit Sustainability

JC Rivers
JC began her career as an educator with the New York City Board of Education, which lead to senior-level positions in healthcare, academia, and human services. Along the way, and with over 30 professional years in revenue-generating roles, she has been influential in securing more than $15 million for nonprofit and private sector organizations nationally and internationally. As an independent contractor, she is a subject matter expert in grant and technical writing with substantial experience as an academic researcher and project manager. JC has held senior positions with such companies as Sanus Health Plan/New York Life, New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation’s Bellevue Medical Center, and Metropolitan Medical Center, New School’s Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy, and Providence Service Corporation. She has been a member of several nonprofit boards and has served on several panels focused on urban education, managed care, health reform, and fund-development during her career. JC has a Ph.D., M. Ed, and M.A from Columbia University’s Teachers College and an M.A from New York University. Although JC hails from New York City, she lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband and an active pup.
JC Rivers

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