If You Need Strong New Nonprofit Board Members, Address Internal Housekeeping First

"We need you to find us a new board chair. We want the CEO of a major corporation who will contribute at least $100,000 annually including the company’s contribution, bring fellow CEOs onto the board, and fundraise vigorously."

It’s not at all unusual for me to receive such a request. As a nonprofit board consultant, I am frequently called upon by NGO/nonprofit CEOs to help identify and recruit new board members who can step in as leaders.

I also receive requests from boards for new board members who will make financial contributions at many times the level that their board members are giving at present. New board chairs or members are often seen as the remedy to cuts in government or corporate funding, or as catalysts to help organizations achieve new ambitions.

I am highly sympathetic to the nonprofit leaders who call. Their causes are noble, and most of them are addressing pressing and growing demands for valuable services while facing funding cuts from every direction.  Additionally, many of their boards are too large for effective decision-making, include a few board members who are no longer adding meaningful value as donors or content experts, and have obsolete structures and practices.

The nonprofit leaders who call are exactly right to think that finding the right board chair and board members is vital to organizational success. The solution, however, is not quick and simple. My advice is this: you can’t attract, recruit, and retain the board members and leaders that you want and need without important strategic work and the commitment and will to change.

Success is possible when a core group of leaders have the commitment and will to advance the organization

Boards can certainly recruit board members who will lead their organizations to greater financial and strategic success. And in my role, I have helped boards to identify and recruit new members who have contributed and raised great sums, and board members who have gone on to be board chairs—sometimes in a fairly short timeframe. However, boards and CEOs who wait for new members to come to the rescue are likely to fail; there is much that can be done in preparation for and in addition to board member recruitment.

First, for each organization, there are a variety of strategic solutions to financial challenges—from changing the revenue model, to focusing programs and services for higher impact, strategic alliances, and so on. All options should be explored in addition to board recruiting.

Secondly, while in many cases, it might be possible to identify and recruit major donors to the board, this can only be accomplished in conjunction with an effective board-development process. Attracting and retaining the most desirable board candidates involves work on the part of the CEO and the board, including building board and CEO consensus around: 

  • The nonprofit’s mission, or the compelling value that the organization brings to the community and the world
  • A greater vision that the organization seeks to achieve over the next few years
  • Core programs and services for the highest impact in serving the mission
  • A dashboard to track financial and strategic progress
  • The revenue model that will be required for success
  • The role of the board in accomplishing the greater vision
  • Expectations of board members

      Establishing and embarking on a plan for:

  • Board size and composition: What size will be effective for decision-making, and who will be needed for this board to achieve success for the organization—what mix of perspectives, backgrounds, experience, expertise, networks and relationships?
  • Leadership succession: How will the board identify, recruit, and cultivate new leaders who have what it takes to advance the organization towards the greater vision?
  • Board meeting agendas: to keep the board focused on its work in taking the organization forward, financially and strategically.
  • Board structure: Number of meetings, how long, and how often—in order to achieve its work effectively and efficiently. 
  • Committee structure: To organize the board’s work effectively and efficiently. 
  • Board practices, including terms and term limits: To ensure that there is enough turnover to keep the board fresh with diverse perspectives and backgrounds. 

By developing a purposeful approach to governance, the board will be best positioned to identify and recruit candidates who will be the most valuable. And in order to achieve the right size for effective board decision-making, and update board’s composition, it might be necessary to celebrate and thank board members whose time has come to step off the board. 

This process takes commitment and will. Keep the mission in mind. And focus on achieving the greater vision and the revenues that are required for success. An experienced board consultant can guide you through the board development process, and help you create a board plan to accomplish your purposes. Ultimately, however, the board with the CEO will make the decisions your organization’s board model and composition. 

The Packard Foundation Goldmine Research Project shows that nonprofit leadership and commitment are required to bring about organizational change

The Packard Foundation recently made public its findings from its OE Goldmine Research Project. The study is aptly named as it is indeed a goldmine of information for nonprofits, funders/investors, and consultants about capacity-building for nonprofits. (“Capacity-building” refers to organizational development.)

For nonprofits working with capacity-building consultants, the top three most common challenges reported were:

  1. Actually implementing changes stemming from the capacity-building (an issue for long-term sustainability and impact)
  2. Staff time to do capacity-building
  3. Lack of leadership for the capacity-building

Three of the most frequently noted “learnings” from grantees involved in the research project were:

  1. The value of external consultants to help in the process and some of the success factors associated with this external help.
  2. The need for time and resources dedicated to the capacity-building process: staff, board and realization that capacity-building takes longer than anticipated.
  3. Recognizing that effective capacity-building is a serious commitment—that it doesn’t end; that it requires strong up-front planning and ongoing project management; and that it should be done from a value-perspective, rather than begrudgingly.

Lessons for nonprofits, consultants, and funders/investors

The lesson for nonprofits: No consultant can come in and reverse your fortunes without your committing leadership, time, and resources as well. The lesson for consultants:  Help your clients and prospective clients to understand what’s possible and what’s involved on their part in bringing about meaningful organizational change. The lesson for funders/investors: Invest in longer-term, quality consulting services and in time and resources for nonprofits to become more effective organizations; this will ensure that your investment pays off and that the world will be a better place.

[Image: Flickr user zoonabar]

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