Written by Diana Kern, NEW’s Vice President of Programs
The role of a nonprofit board is to be the shepherds of the mission. The board must ensure the nonprofit’s mission is relevant and that the mission can be achieved today, as well as, into the future. Boards need to review their own performance no less than every five years and ask themselves hard questions. Boards also need to stay up to date on best practices, governance expectations of donors, the new Form990 and IRS guidelines, and the desires and wants of the community.
Too many nonprofit boards today have become insular, with no turn over and no real understanding of what the stakeholders want. Also, too many boards have lost touch with their role versus that of the staff. For many human service agencies where federal grants and contracts have been the mainstay of revenue for years, boards have dismissed their role completely in fund development or sustainable, diversified funding discussions. Boards will muddle along, year after year without taking the temperature of what their real role should be in the current environment. If this is happening to your board it might be time to get outside help. A new perspective can many times ignite a group that stills feels passionate about the mission, but it not sure how to govern well today.
High-functioning boards focus on resource development. Resources for nonprofits include people (staff, board, volunteers, and committee members), money and assets. If your board meetings do not include significant time discussing resource development and resource allocation then you might need help.
To determine if you might need facilitation help consider asking the following questions. If you can not come up with a definitive, collective answer quickly or if you have NEVER asked these questions of yourselves, it might be time to engage in structured board development work:
- What size should our board be today? Do we talk about number of volunteer leaders needed based on skill sets we need, committee structures needed, fundraising, outreach, etc?
- What do we think about term limits?
- How should we set up our governance structure so board meetings are filled with issues the board needs to handle and not issues for day to day operations?
- Do we have functioning committees that get things done for the board and how do these committees communicate with the board? Do we allow non-board members to serve on our committees?
- When was the last time we reviewed our mission, vision and bylaws?
- Has our funding decreased or stayed the same over the last 4 years?
- Do we have a functioning Fundraising Committee or Development Committee? Do we have a Development Director and if not, what role do we think our CEO/ED should play in fund development? Have we discussed this with our CEO/ED? How would we back-fill the operational needs of the organization if we decided our CEO should be development focused and not operationally focused?
- Do we have a strategic plan that we follow? One that drives our annual goals and that we share with all stakeholders? Do we recruit people to our board based on the strategic plan needs and the overall goals of the organization? Or do we ask ourselves, “Does anyone know anyone who will be on our board?”
- Do we expect our CEO/Executive Director to find the board members?
- Is the board burned out and tired? Do we fewer than five board members and think this is okay?
- Are the board meetings boring with little outcomes or change?
- Are the board meetings lengthy and overwhelming?
- Do we think we are a true partner with our CEO/ED?
- Do we think we are a working board or an advisory board? Does this match the needs the organization at this point in time?
These are only a few of the questions that boards should be asking themselves. Small nonprofits will often say, “We do not have money to hire a consultant.” That might be true, but how long will you continue to plod along, with no increase in funding, no real outcomes, burned out or unengaged board members and an unfulfilled mission? If you wait too long, it might be too late.