Key Stages in a Board's Evolution

Posted by Stephen Lemire on August 16, 2012 at 1:30 PM

There are many important phases through which a nonprofit board of directors must pass to become firmly established and effective. In particular, I view the early stages as being marked by significant developments and transitions, and the latter stages highlighted by professional growth and maturation.

Development & Transitions

In my most recent entry I discussed issues related to the boards of start-up nonprofits and suggested that sometimes problems arise due to Founder’s Syndrome and, at other times, it is merely a case of organizational growing pains. (http://www.4site4nonprofits.com/apps/blog/entries/show/17747770-founder-s-syndrome-or-growing-pains-) As the founding board emerges from its nascent stage, its members must constantly ask themselves: “Who’s missing from our board?”

As founders are replaced or elected directors rotate off on an annual basis, the board is provided with an opportunity to continually augment itself with new board members who may possess talents needed to help round out the board’s collective skill set. For example, new board members with financial, legal, or marketing experience might be assets for the board. Yet, the board may also need to consider key representatives of its constituencies such as association members, community contacts, legislative liaisons, and those that will open doors to the donor community. Above all, any prospective board member must be committed to the mission and be willing to support the nonprofit or it can create a divisive and tiered set of directors.

There are a few processes that need to be in place to ensure that these outcomes can be achieved. The nominating committee, with input from the executive director and other members of the board, needs to maintain and vet board candidates on an ongoing basis. Some worthy prospective board members may need to be reached out to as many are hesitant to volunteer or self-nominate and simply require encouragement. Also, the nomination and election processes need to be very open and public so that future candidates will come forward and not be discouraged by any impressions of a “canned process”. Finally, newly elected directors must receive a structured training and orientation provided by the president and executive director to help them on-board smoothly.

Growth & Maturation

Most board members have never had any formalized board training. It’s important for the nonprofit to provide professional development for its directors on a regular basis. For example, they can carve out 30 minutes from every board of directors meeting to have different directors provide in-services or bring in an expert to brief the board on subjects such: How to interpret nonprofit financial statements; Social media and nonprofits; Legal issues which could impact our organization; etc. Another helpful discussion is to have each director (as many are on other boards, too) identify effective practices of the other boards that they’re on and suggest whether or not this board should consider adopting it.

A final important, yet often over-looked, process for a maturing board to put in place is an annual self-assessment. There are a wide variety of off-the-shelf tools to use and the board should consider using the same one each year to standardize results and progress. Most importantly, the board needs to incorporate any recommendations they come up with into their operations.

Each nonprofit board will take a different amount of time passing through these stages and some, at times, may have to repeat certain phases based on conditions such as a turnover of important directors. Many of these boards will need to be led a strong president or aided by a visionary executive director. Yet, once the board has evolved and established itself, its members can more readily focus on governance and they can serve as ambassadors in the community on issues of advocacy and development.

Categories: Board of Directors, Nonprofits, Associations

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