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Boards of directors, comprised of volunteers, have the decision-making authority and power over the direction and finances of nonprofit organizations. Although there are boards that are disappointingly ineffective, I have seen many boards rise to the occasion to lead their organizations to success in service to the community.

The first nonprofit board that asked me to help them with a complete overhaul was a community based nonprofit that served a large immigrant population helping people with language skills, adults with job training and placement, children with after-school care and homework, and families with social services. That was in the 1990's. Since then, I have assisted dozens of nonprofits—regional as well as global—in building stronger boards and establishing the leadership they need to advance strategically and financially to serve the community.

The impetus for change is often financial distress, especially in today's environment with cutbacks in government funding and philanthropy. But some boards and nonprofit executives seek to transform their boards simply because they are proactive. They recognize opportunities for fees for services, collaboration and alliances with other organizations, and innovation in addressing vital matters in education, healthcare, poverty, social justice, the environment, and others areas. They realize that the only way for an organization to advance is to build a strong board with excellent leadership.

How do boards drive change? Change always requires a few drivers, and it takes more than the chief executive of the nonprofit. It takes at least a couple of board members and possibly a funder or two for there to be enough traction to push for change. Then, together with a qualified board consultant, the change-agents can transform the board into a high functioning body.

What's an effective board look like? The board chair is working in partnership (see "the leadership partnership") with the nonprofit's chief executive to lead a group of passionate board members from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to

  1. Affirm, and if necessary, update the mission to ensure that the organization is providing compelling value in service to the community
  2. Envision the organization's greater potential in service to the community—its vision (See the board's "duty of imagination")
  3. Create and help to achieve the revenue model for success—and for nonprofits, the revenue model is usually a patchwork of revenue sources, which might include government funds, philanthropic resources, as well as fees for services
  4. Focus board agendas—and the work in between board meetings—in helping the organization to achieve strategic and financial success, including through oversight, and fundraising
  5. Establish a logical committee structure to organize the board to do its work
  6. Establish board member expectations and a system of accountability
  7. Build the board with people who have the variety of experiences, skills, and networks to help advance the organization, including people with leadership potential
  8. Establish a cadre of board leaders who have the diversity of backgrounds, the experience, and the qualities to lead, while also creating a pipeline of potential new leaders for the future
  9. Provide opportunities for continuous board education on governance, fundraising, and matters of substance related to the work of the organization

The nonprofit sector is not an abstract concept; rather, it is the sum of nonprofit boards. The boards hold the power to make the world a better place. And, it's actually quite doable to help boards become more effective, one board at a time.