Successful Boards Depend on Good Staffing


Approval of the budget is often a rote exercise of whatever is produced by staff and/or a finance or executive committee without much explanation or input by the board.

By Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D.

“Our board does not carry out its role; as a matter of fact it doesn’t even know what its role is.” This is a common refrain of senior staff in the not for profit sector. It is almost as if board members are supposed to understand their role by osmosis upon appointment. However, it is the staff’s job to ensure that a board functions effectively.

All employees, not just the executive, must understand the responsibilities of the board. Often staff, especially development directors, think that the role of the board is solely to raise money. That’s not true. The board has a lot of duties: policy making; priority setting; budget approval; hiring, evaluating and when appropriate firing the chief executive officer; attending meetings; and serving as positive spokespersons for the not for profit.

In order to perform these functions, the board has to be educated about the organization – its purpose and the programs that are designed to carry it out. The executive staff is responsible for making certain that each board member not only has this information but also understands it.

The educational process starts with a new board member orientation and then extends throughout each person’s term. And yet how many organizations do not implement any kind of briefing for new board members? I have even heard some leaders say that the new board member orientation and board retreat are one in the same. Not so.

Training can include tours and meetings with various employees. Most important, each board meeting should start with some kind of educational component – what is happening or has occurred that has been accomplished or not since the last get together. In other words it is the staff’s responsibility to ensure that the board is educated about the successes and failures of the organization including explanations for each outcome.

Serving as a spokesperson for an organization – especially a positive one recognizing warts and problems – implies a well-versed board member and that assumes that the staff is doing a good job in providing the necessary schooling. Attending meetings is another requirement of a board member and is part of the educational process. But it is the staff’s job to ensure that meeting notices and background information are sent in a timely fashion so that board members can prepare and participate cogently in discussions. Sometimes the executive staff has to impose his or her will on a volunteer to ensure that this communication occurs.

The Board approves the budget which provides the clearest picture of the priorities of the organization – what areas will receive the most funding because they are deemed of greatest importance and those that will receive the least. The budget reflects what will be added or reduced when compared to the prior year. However, approval of the budget is often a rote exercise of whatever is produced by staff and/or a finance or executive committee without much explanation or input by the board notwithstanding that it reflects what is supposed to be serious decision making. It is the staff’s responsibility, working with the president, to ensure that priorities are framed by the board in an ongoing way so that when the budget is reviewed for a final vote, there are no surprises.

It is the board’s obligation to ensure that resources to fund the budget have been realistically identified. A common but unacceptable practice in many organizations is to take any shortfall in proposed income vis a vis expense and automatically make that sum the development goal. This modus operandi only leads to unreasonable expectations and most likely failure.

Board members are responsible for fundraising but within that arena there are many roles that can be assumed all of which must be guided by the staff. First, each board member must make a gift and it is the responsibility of the CEO to ensure that not only does the president do so first, but then develop a plan with the latter for soliciting board members. In addition, the CEO along with a director of development if there is one must oversee this process.

Board members can participate on a strategic development committee and be part of creating a feasible fundraising plan – not just for one year, but over time – maybe three to five years. They can help create recognition policies; they can work on an event. Board members must attend fundraising functions and invite friends and/or cohorts. Depending upon the wealth of the individual, he or she may pay for guest tickets or host a table. The easiest responsibility may be to introduce a potential donor to the CEO or development director and actually set up, prepare for and attend a meeting with the prospect and staff person. But the latter has to offer these various options and follow up in relation to all of them. Moreover, as part of the education process, real examples of experiences – including successful and unsuccessful solicitations – need to be part of every board meeting agenda so that members see how these happen and hopefully feel increasingly comfortable and energized to take on this particular responsibility.

It is the obligation of the CEO to ensure that his or her evaluation is conducted on a regular and timely basis; a calendar and timeline must be created with the president. A subcommittee of board members can be appointed to participate in the process. Whatever the methodology, ongoing evaluations can help to prevent turnover crises within an organization.

Board members must be educated about what they can expect from employees. Many have never worked in a volunteer/staff relationship – or a good one – and they have no idea what the respective roles are or they may never have been taught that they can ask for and are entitled to receive certain kinds of help. For example, at board retreats board member responsibilities are often identified, but there is rarely a discussion of what board members want and need from staff in order to help them implement their role effectively.

Staff must remember that in the long run board members are volunteers. I was consulting with a CEO who complained about a board member who undertook an assignment but had not called to report on the outcome. She felt it was the board member’s responsibility to telephone her and convey what happened. “No,” I explained, “you work for the board not the other way around; you have to make that call.”

In summary, it is the responsibility of senior staff to ensure that the board does its job well. First, educate the board using a variety of mechanisms such as new board member orientations, conveying examples and discussions of successful (and unsuccessful) fundraising efforts by board members, etc. Second, recommend policies and procedures for board action based on professional experience and knowledge and bring these to the president, sub-committees and the entire board with well documented background information. Third, draft a budget based on the ongoing decisions of the board in relation to policies, procedures and most importantly, priorities and work with the board to ensure that approval is not rote but through an ongoing process of deliberation and decision making. Fourth, in the case of the CEO, ensure that evaluations occur within an agreed upon timeframe and goals and behaviors for further work are identified. Fifth, solicit or create the mechanism for asking the president for a charitable donation and working with the latter, create a plan for requesting a contribution from each board member. Sixth, involve board members in fundraising according to their interests and follow up with each person on a regular basis. Finally, advise board members what they can expect from you and your colleagues.

Deborah Kaplan Polivy, Ph.D., is a fund development consultant and the author of “Donor Cultivation and the Donor Lifecycle Map: A New Framework for Fundraising” (Wiley). Her website is