Observations on Effective Boards

Posted by Stephen Lemire on February 16, 2012 at 11:20 AM

Board of Directors Greatest Hits sounds like a Time-Life series of CDs (not sold in stores). But, rather, it is a compilation of my “somewhat editorialized” list of traits and characteristics which the most successful nonprofit boards possess. Specifically, these boards have an External Focus, Function Strategically, and have a Structured Governance - the only set in the list directed by the bylaws.


I have been an executive director who has worked with more than twenty different boards. I count a board as being different from one year to the next even if the members remain the same but at least one director has changed office because, that alone, can significantly alter the group’s dynamics. In addition, I have been a director on a number of community boards which has provided me with an alternative perspective and, more importantly, a better viewpoint on how to perform as an executive director.


The Board’s View is External and Long Term
It shall be guided by the mission.
It shall focus on governance, not operations.
It shall follow the direction of the strategic plan and amend it, as needed.
It shall be engaged in fund-raising and development.
It shall participate in all policy and advocacy initiatives.


The Board’s Functions are Strategic and Defined

The President is the external representative along with the Executive Director.
The Vice President supports the President and Executive Director on operational issues.
The Executive Committee and one or two other “rising stars” make up a strong core group.
Directors understand financial statements and are involved with budgeting and audits.
Directors are representative of the membership and are not homogeneous.
Board member nominee recruitment is guided by skill sets and key personnel needed.
The board has an organized and detailed orientation for new directors.
The board includes professional development on its agenda for board meetings.
The board conducts an annual self-assessment and acts on items identified needing improvement.
Directors do not micromanage the executive director.
Directors have a succession plan for hiring a new executive director.
Directors act as hosts, rather than simply attendees, at all organization-sponsored functions.


The Board has Internal Mechanisms to Structure its Governance
Directors must serve at least one term prior to becoming an officer.
Directors must serve at least one term as an officer before becoming President.
Officers serve one year terms with the ability to run for re-election for that office one time.
Directors serve three year terms; 1/3 of the board rotates off each year.
The optimum size of the board is 12-15 directors.
The Immediate Past President is ex officio and helps with transition issues for one year.
The Executive Director is an ex officio member of the board.
An Emeritus Board of past presidents helps on a per project basis at the request of the President.


These observations are not one size fits all. The general principles and recommendations need to vary by the scope of each organization. For example: Is it local, regional or national? Is it a start-up or mature nonprofit? Is it a community service provider or a professional association? Yet, these are the types of considerations which the board and executive director must consider and work through to create a fine-tuned leadership.

Categories: Nonprofits, Associations, Board of Directors

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