Formula for Empowered Leadership

By Nanette Fridman

Phew, your leadership development or nominating committee filled all the open seats on your board. What a relief! Sadly, too many organizations think that their work is done once new board members are secured or sworn in at their annual meeting. The truth is that if we want empowered leaders who roll up their sleeves and lead, the work has just begun when they say “yes.”

Based on my many years working with nonprofits, I have posited a formula for empowered lay leadership.

Empowered Lay Leadership = (1) Clarity of Roles + (2) Right People
+ (3) Investment in People + (4) Well-Managed Structures and Meetings
+ (5) Assessment + (6) Communication and Sharing Success

1.  Clarity of Roles means that board member expectations and responsibilities are clearly articulated and shared in writing before someone joins your board. “It’s not a heavy lift,” or “We only meet every other month.” These phrases may help fill open seats, but most likely they are not going to get the kind of leaders you really seek. Every job – professional or lay – needs a job description. Some boards have board agreements that new board members sign indicating they understand and accept their roles.

2. The Right People means bringing the “best” people on the board who have the general characteristics of good board members and the skills or attributes that your organization needs at the particular point in time based both on your current board members and on your strategic direction and upcoming undertakings. For example, if you are considering building, you may look to add people who work in architecture, construction, financing or have experience with capital campaigns depending on your board’s current composition.

3. Investment in People starts by how you welcome newcomers at your annual meeting and on your website. Onboarding new members by hosting social get togethers, providing relevant information in board books and orienting them to the organization, its programs and people signals new board members how seriously to take their positions and how quickly you expect them to engage. Done well, onboarding gives new board members a lay of the land and enough to feel comfortable jumping in to the work of the board. Training at meetings or retreats is a common way to ensure your people have the necessary skills such as solicitation or volunteer management. Some organizations assign mentors to new board members. Especially for those with potential for executive leadership, coaching can be a worthwhile investment. In addition to all the conveyance of information and skills, investing in people is at its core about relationship building.

4. Well-Managed Structures and Meetings are a must. The quickest ways to discourage someone from taking on leadership is by making them feel the nonprofit lacks the organization to be effective or that their time or expertise will be wasted. Ask the following questions: Do we have a clear governance structure and do our leaders know how decisions are made? Do our committees have written charges? Do we take the time to find the right committee or project that suits each person? Do the committee members understand their responsibilities and is the committee run to best utilize members’ expertise and time? Are our committees held accountable? How do they share their progress and accomplishments, and how do we celebrate their success?

For board meetings, use your members’ time wisely by having a thoughtful and followed agenda, starting and stopping on time, presenting issues of governance for discussion and engaging in strategic thinking that allows everyone to contribute their expertise. Board meetings are not the time for report reading. Everyone should leave a meeting with next steps and to-dos.

5. Assessment. When we authorize leaders to act on behalf of our organization, we should evaluate their progress and effectiveness. Collective and individual board evaluations are powerful tools for reflection and identifying areas for growth and opportunities.

6. Communication and Sharing Success. Like in any arena that involves relationships; good, regular, timely communication is paramount for strong boards. It is also vital to demonstrate the impact of the organization and their work to leaders. Touching the mission energizes people and reminds them why they are volunteering their time. It is important to share and celebrate milestones and successes together.

Inviting new people to join the board and take seats at the table is not the end; rather, it is just the beginning. The formula that I have suggested is meant to guide professional staff and lay executive leadership to empower leaders early on to engage them and maximize their potential impact. What else would you add to the formula?

As John Maxwell said, “The single biggest way to impact an organization is to focus on leadership development. There is almost no limit to the potential of an organization that recruits good people, raises them up as leaders and continually develops them.” I couldn’t agree more.

Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching for nonprofits. She is the author of “On Board: What Current and Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits & Board Service.” Nanette can be reached at