How to Evaluate and Strengthen Your Board of Directors

The hallmark of the third sector and its agencies is a strong, viable, committed, and passionate base of volunteer leadership.

by Stephen G. Donshik

Last week I participated in a forum of professionals in nonprofit organizations in which we share common challenges and discuss ways we can better meet them. One of the members suggested that the CEO of a multiservice organization make a presentation about his agency so the group could offer strategies he might use. It was an interesting exercise, and the group was more than willing to assist the CEO, who was very passionate and committed to the organization and its clients. During his initial presentation the CEO focused on the need for additional funds and made no mention of the board of directors; however, in response to a question he said that the board was very supportive of the organization.

As the discussion continued it was apparent that the board was composed of well-meaning members of the community who saw their role primarily as helping the agency continue to deliver crucial services to community residents in need. However, they did not agree that they had responsibility for setting agency policy or for the financial sustainability of the organization. I surmised from the CEO’s presentation that the board understood its role to be more of “cheerleading” and providing a social sanction for the range of services and programs provided to its clients.

It was apparent that both the CEO and the board chairperson were not clear about the role and function of the volunteer leaders. The agency would never be able to meet its challenges if the board was not in agreement as to their purpose and function and was not prepared to take more responsibility for the organization. The agency could not sustain itself on the basis of the CEO’s passion and commitment alone.

The need to assess the present board and map its strengths and weakness was clear to many of the nonprofit professionals sitting around the forum table. Only after there was a clear picture of the present board could there be a mapping of the board’s needs and the development of a strategy for strengthening the board.

The goal of this strategic redevelopment would be the creation of a true partnership between the volunteer leadership and the professional staff in providing services to the community. In negotiating this process the CEO would not only redevelop the organization but he would also educate the board about its responsibility in providing services that help strengthen the social fabric of the community. Once there was an active and involved board there would an opportunity to create an appropriate system for developing agency policies and for attaining financial sustainability.

There are several important steps that a CEO can use to evaluate and redevelop an agency’s board.

  1. The first step is convening a board meeting to discuss the need to redevelop the board of directors. The chairperson must be brought into this process beforehand and persuaded of the importance of this strategy; then the CEO and the chairperson present this idea together. Board members might need some time to come to understand the importance of a committed and involved board that would share responsibility for the continued functioning and development of the organization.
  2. Once there is agreement on redeveloping the board, the second step is mapping the type of people you want on the board. Given the purpose and function of the agency, several categories are important to consider. You want people who have some expertise and experience with the target population and other people who have been involved in the community. You want to include people who have a connection with the local municipal government. There should be some representatives of the business community and a number of people who have a philanthropic interest in the services the agency provides. Depending on the nature of the agency’s services it is not uncommon to include some people who represent those who are served by the agency.
  3. The third step is to compare the present board of directors with the criteria you have developed. This exercise of matching the people who are already involved with the needs of the agency will show what gaps need to be filled so that the board can more effectively realize its mission.
  4. The fourth step is reconstructing the board by identifying specific individuals who will be appropriate for the positions that need to be filled. The volunteer leaders and the professional staff should prepare a list of names representing potential new members of the board of directors. At the same time, the agency’s by-laws should be reviewed to confirm there is a process in place for retiring some of the present board members and nominating and electing new board members. If the mechanisms do not exist to make the necessary changes, then the by-laws have to be amended.
  5. The fifth step is to approach those people who have been identified as potential board members. Although, ideally, volunteer leaders should engage the potential board members, there may be times when the CEO or other professional staff members have a relationship with these people. In that case the staff members should engage these people in an initial discussion, and once they express an interest in joining the board, the board chair or volunteer leader should complete the recruitment process.
  6. After the new board members have agreed to serve and are voted into office it is time to have a board retreat. The purpose of the retreat would be to introduce the new board members to the organization and to confirm the vision and mission of the organization. It is important that all members of the board “buy in” to the agency’s purpose and function and agree about what should be the agency’s image in the community.

This retreat also provides an opportunity to reimagine the agency’s vision and mission and for the new board members to raise questions, discuss issues, and make suggestions. Such an engagement process strengthens the new members’ identification with the organization and nurtures their initial investment in the agency’s development so that they will become active participants over time.

Initiating a review of the board’s composition and mission, and then infusing new life into it, provides the opportunity to develop its social capital, which will then enable the agency to fulfill its purposes, attain financial sustainability, and thereby more effectively provide the needed services to the community.

When an organization resists building a strong leadership base it risks imploding because the staff cannot assume total responsibility for the agency. The hallmark of the third sector and its agencies is a strong, viable, committed, and passionate base of volunteer leadership. Let’s hope my colleague understands this before it is too late and his organization ceases to provide the clients with the needed and valued services in his community.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.