Why the Right Board of Directors is Critical to Your Nonprofit's Success
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In Start Your Own Nonprofit Organization, the staff at Entrepreneur Press and writer Cheryl Kimball explain how you can launch a successful nonprofit organization, whether your mission is feeding children, preserving history or any of the other myriad goals nonprofits set out to achieve. In this edited excerpt, the authors outline what characteristics and skills you need to look for when selecting the members of your nonprofit's board of directors.
Starting a nonprofit requires creating a board of directors that oversees the operation of the nonprofit. Members of the board are volunteers, and selection of the board is a critical aspect of startup.
A startup nonprofit is going to want a diverse board representing two key characteristics: an entrepreneurial spirit and an abundance of energy. The startup board will likely be more heavily focused on being a “working board”--one that rolls up its sleeves and does the work of the nonprofit to fulfill its mission and help make it a sustainable operation.
Another useful trait of board members who are in on the ground floor is that they have connections in areas that are key to the success of the nonprofit. For example, if a nonprofit is a medical-related organization, having a preponderance of board members that are in the medical industry somehow or another--nurses, doctors, radiologists, medical assistants--will be helpful in having ready access to key information and issues pertinent to the organization.
Always useful to a startup nonprofit are board members who own their own small businesses. These small-business owner board members will bring experience and knowledge that will help get your organization up and running and poised for growth to the next level. And they may own a business that can be useful in the operation of your nonprofit--board members with small businesses often contribute financially to the organization by offering free or deeply discounted goods and services.
Lastly, it's helpful to have a board member or two who hasn’t been in on the evolution of the idea--these are the people who'll gently challenge the board as the organization really gets underway.
Four members of the board are elected as the officers of the board--president, vice president, treasurer and secretary. For a startup organization, the founder may serve as the board president or, if the founder is to be the executive director, the founder may pick a board president and together they gather the other three board executives. Then the five of them can work on pulling together board members, the total number of which is directed by state regulations and in the organization’s bylaws.
The board president needs to have strong leadership capabilities and should be someone with whom the executive director can have a good working relationship since the president and the director will work fairly closely. The board president should be totally committed to the mission of the organization.
The president should also have deep connections to the community that are most meaningful to the mission of the organization. For example, an advocacy organization that spends a lot of time in the political arena speaking up for their constituents at the state legislature would best have a board president who's politically connected and who can get the attention of the state legislative members and perhaps the media.
The vice president’s key role is to sub for the president when he or she isn't available--for instance, the VP would facilitate a board meeting at which the president couldn't be present. For a startup, the VP might also take on a particular project, event or task as their pet project. There may also be a key role the VP can take on--perhaps be in tune with the personnel and provide an HR function, be the lead on reviewing the executive director, etc.
When picking the VP, keep in mind that this person is quite often the natural pick to assume the presidency of the organization if the president “terms out” or steps down. The VP certainly may have a different style and a different overriding agenda (that still meets with the mission), but the VP also needs to be in line with the mission. And the VP needs to have leadership capabilities to take on the president's role.
The best boards have a specific role for the vice president--perhaps the chair of the annual key fundraiser or the person who attends several events representing the organization, or the board member who knows how to write grant proposals. This key role will be unique to your organization. Just don’t overlook using the VP position to fulfill a key function on the board.
Quite logically, the person chosen as treasurer should be good with numbers. However, the real skill here isn't as bookkeeper; the organization should have a day-to-day bookkeeper who records income and expenses and prepares financial statements. The treasurer is more of a big-picture person and should be able to read the financials and interpret them in order to report to the board any anomalies for the reporting period and other specific line items on the financials the board should know about. She or he should also be able to answer the board’s specific questions about the financials and be able to help the director prepare financially related reports and research.
A key role of the secretary position is to take notes at meetings and produce minutes. It may be good to revolve the secretary position on an annual basis. The only drawback to this is if the secretary is a great fit for the executive committee team (made up of the four board officers). But what often happens is that the secretary is so busy writing down the meeting’s contents that she or he often has little ability to participate in the meetings.
The remaining board members fill the mandate set by your state (in New Hampshire, for instance, a nonprofit board must consist of no fewer than five unrelated people) and, subsequently, your bylaws.