Monday, April 30, 2007


All new members must receive a thorough orientation to both the organization and to the board that extends the basic information already presented in the recruitment process.

Some of this orientation is informational and may be provided via fairly straightforward means (e.g., handbooks, articles, web resources) that the new member can peruse at his/her leisure. Other aspects of the recruitment process should include one-on-one contact with your board leadership and/or your dean/director, as well as additional opportunities to acquaint themselves with you and your programs.

Critical to the orientation process is early immersion in your organizational culture. Immediately assign new board members to active committees that use their interests and talents. Engaging new members in stimulating and useful work builds understanding and commitment and draws them deeper into organizational operations. It gives them a role in the larger process.

Consider assigning new members a mentor, or “board buddy,” for the first six months to one year. A mentor’s duties might include meeting periodically with the new board member and being available to answer questions about the organization and/or the board’s work.

Newer boards – Develop an orientation process, preferably face-to-face, and institutionalize that process into your operations. Consider flexible delivery options to make the process as easy as possible for the new member (e.g., meet individually at his/her office or home, schedule group or individual sessions immediately before or after a board meeting). Use print and electronic vehicles to augment the learning process and reinforce messages/expectations conveyed verbally.

Veteran boards – Assign board mentors to new members, with the expectation that the mentor will work with the recruit for at least six months. If logistics allow, consider adding the expectation that each board member will serve as a mentor at least once during his/her term. (Mentoring frequently strengthens the experienced member’s understanding of the board/organization and revitalizes that person’s commitment to your work.)

Some questions to guide discussion:

• What do new board members need to know to succeed?
• How do we orient new board members?
• What works well in that process?
• What could be improved?
• What would an effective board mentor program look like?

Friday, April 27, 2007


When you identify a good match of board need and individual qualities, it’s time to invite the prospect to become a member. Any invitation should include a description of what the board needs/expects from board members. Don’t minimize your requirements – it is better to provide an accurate picture and be turned down than to bring on board someone who is unwilling or unable to fulfill his/her responsibilities later on.

Recruitment should be a two-way process that provides the prospect an opportunity to ask questions and clarify expectations ahead of time. You may want to include a trial period, e.g., ask the recruit to visit one or more meetings before a commitment is requested. This will allow the prospect and board to get acquainted and to test the fit before a commitment is made.

Newer boards – Identify baseline materials needed to bring board members up to speed as they join the group, and create a board handbook for distribution to all new recruits. Select a format (e.g., three-ring binder) that allows updating as they receive new printed information. As you recruit charter board members, target individuals who can be active. Establishing and developing a new board is labor-intensive work that should be shared by all members.

Veteran boards – Consider requiring prospective board members to visit at least one meeting, and giving them a chance to ask questions about that visit, before making an offer to join. As new recruits join, present them with a board handbook (including minutes from at least two previous meetings) and spend some time (board president, board mentor or other designee) reviewing its contents with them.

Some questions to guide discussion:

• How do we recruit prospective board members?
• What information do we provide to assist them with their decision?
• How can we diversify our pool of recruits (and referral sources)?
• How could we improve these processes?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Cultivating prospective board members should never be a blind process. Boards should carefully consider whether an individual would be a good fit. Describe your needs to current board members, organization staff and friends and ask them for recommendations. Approach constituency groups for names of prospects on a regular basis. Remember – cultivation is a year-round process.

Consider non-board volunteers in your pool of prospects: they have already identified themselves as supportive of your programs and demonstrated that support by sharing their time and talents.

Once prospective board members have been identified, find ways to connect with them, gauge their interest in your organization, and update them on new developments. Ask them to volunteer for specific projects. Add them to your publication mailing list. Make sure they receive invitations to events. Begin increasing quality interaction and information sharing with your prospects.

Newer boards – Identify volunteer leaders in other areas of your organization who have demonstrated an interest in your work and in helping you achieve your mission. Keep them informed about the board’s work and show how that work fulfills your organizational mission. Build interaction opportunities between the board and other key volunteers into your annual planning calendar.

Veteran boards – If you already have an advisory group, use that body as a prime cultivation source: individuals have already shown a commitment to your organization, and board service is an appropriate “next step” in deepening that commitment. Continue to build in joint interaction opportunities for all of your volunteers, including the board.

Some questions to guide discussion:

• How do we identify and approach prospective board members?
• What groundwork do we lay (e.g., how do we inform them about our activities, how do we include them in our work) before prospective board members become recruits?
• How could we improve these processes?

Monday, April 23, 2007


Effective boards bring the right mix of talent and energy to their volunteer service. While it is tempting to find anyone willing to fill a slot on your roster, it’s more important to think strategically about the human resources that your board needs to succeed. When many boards assess their needs, they focus on demographic characteristics -- e.g., gender, ethnicity, age, and residency. In fact, there are other factors that your board may want to consider, including:

• Skills (e.g., fund raising, public relations, special events, accounting)
• Knowledge (e.g., art history, K-12 education, medicine)
• Connections (e.g., constituency liaisons, “people who know people”)

Your group likely will find that a mix of perspectives and talents will be optimal. Once you’ve listed the range of needs that your organization requires, take some time to identify the qualities and skills that your current members bring to the group. (Don’t assume you know the answer to that question – board members may individually identify “hidden” talents that they’ve never disclosed before, usually because no one asked). Using your board’s needs list, ask each member to indicate what skills, knowledge, etc., he/she brings to the group, then create a group profile. Doing so will uncover the obvious – and perhaps not so obvious –- contributions that individuals bring to the board. It also will unveil the gaps that can be used to guide recruitment of new members. As you embark on this process, you may find value in creating a grid similar to the example provided in the appendix.

Newer boards – As you develop your group, spend some time discussing what qualities and voices you need to accomplish your goals. Do you need representation in specific geographic areas? Specific educational backgrounds or professions? People who know major gift prospects? People with access to specific stakeholder groups? Volunteers with a record of supporting your unit? New people looking for a way to get involved? What is the right mix of needs to help your board do its work?

Veteran boards – Include a regular (annual) assessment of board skills/needs and the contributions that current board members bring to the group. Use that assessment to identify gaps, and let that information guide your recruitment process.

Some questions to foster discussion:

• How do/will we identify needs for board membership?
• How do/will we identify the qualities that our current board members bring to the group?
• What are our biggest board needs?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Board Building Cycle

In my years of work with nonprofit boards, I’ve encountered a handful of writings and tools that stand out above all others in their creativity and applicability to the real organizational lives of these governing bodies. One of those seminal models is the Board Building Cycle (BBC).

The Board Building Cycle, developed by Marla J. Bobowick, Berit Lakey, and Sandra R. Hughes for the National Center for Nonprofit Boards (now BoardSource), offers a framework for understanding the complex processes required to develop strong, proactive governing and advisory boards.

The BBC offers a thought-provoking way to understand the factors that impact board performance. Understanding is the first step toward enhancing that performance. Most boards manage to engage in activities that produce most factors, though with varying levels of success. Generally, individual boards may show strength in one or more phases of the cycle and struggle with others.

Over the next three weeks, I will share my interpretations of each phase of the BBC cycle. I also will offer some application recommendations for both veteran and newer nonprofit boards, and some basic questions to initiate meaningful discussions about each stage of the cycle.

* Graphic reprinted with permission from The Board Building Cycle, by Marla J. Bobowick, Berit Lakey, and Sandra R. Hughes, Copyright 2000, National Center for Nonprofit Boards. For more information about NCNB (now BoardSource) call 800-883-6262 or visit

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Rewriting the Job Description – Round 2

Last time, I began sharing my early attempt to create my own nonprofit board member job description, one that speaks to the broader, unique contributions of governance. Today, I introduce the second half of this work-in-progress.

In the AMBASSADOR role, the board member acts as boundary spanner – reaching out from the organization and building relationships with key stakeholders. As community leaders and volunteers, board members have a credibility that staff on the organizational payroll can never have with many audiences. That gives great power to the contacts that board members make – power to engage donors and potential donors, policy makers, opinion leaders, volunteers and others. Whether these contacts occur in a formal setting, or in the informal interactions of daily life, they carry great potential to make a difference and build support.

The VISIONARY role may be the biggest stretch for the board – and the hardest to squeeze into the press of everyday responsibilities. But it may be the one of greatest long-term importance. It’s where the board creates the future: anticipating the issues and opportunities, generating ideas that shape what the organization will become. Boards must make time for visionary work, to generate a compelling image that will inspire greatness within, and commitment to, the organization.

In reframing the way board work is portrayed, I hope to balance the emphasis on the fiscal with the equally critical roles that often take a back seat. They’re all important, they’re all the responsibility of a nonprofit’s governing body. They are all worth our time and energy.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Rewriting the Job Description

Between ongoing preparations for my dissertation research and my real-life responsibilities serving on nonprofit boards, I’m spending a lot of time these days pondering the ultimate contributions – and the most compelling responsibilities – of governance.

One thing that’s been troubling me of late: the increasing emphasis on the oversight tasks of board work. Obviously, organizational accountability is critical work, work that falls squarely on the board’s shoulders. Educating board members about those responsibilities and helping them be as effective as possible in carrying them out is vitally important.

However, I fear that we risk minimizing equally vital functions that require board leadership in our intense focus on this one area – functions that not only sustain the organization but also create a rich future that moves closer toward its mission.

As I’ve attempted to put my concerns into context, I’ve begun to articulate an alternate job description that comes closer to describing in a balanced way the areas where board members can not only fulfill governance obligations but also make a specific unique impact.

My job description is very much “draft,” a work in progress. But I’d like share where I’m headed right now, and welcome feedback that might help me refine my thinking.

Right now, I see a four-role model:

* Steward
* Leader
* Ambassador
* Visionary

I’ll conclude this entry with a brief description of the first two roles. My next entry will describe the other half of the model.

As a STEWARD, the board member takes responsibility for appropriate use of the organization’s resources – human, financial and reputational. Boards spend vast amounts of time – appropriately so – setting budgets, approving and monitoring expenditures, and other duties involving numbers. But stewardship extends beyond money: it’s doing everything in your power to ensure that your nonprofit meets all legal requirements and the highest ethical standards. Stewardship is more than oversight. It’s protecting and growing resources to help you achieve your mission – and ensuring that what is given is used effectively toward that purpose.

The board member as nonprofit LEADER shines the light on the organization’s vision and mission – and on the processes and relationships that facilitate them. Leadership is a partnership, between board members, and between board and executive director. Leadership defines and supports mission, and ensures that all decisions – particularly program selection – move the organization in that direction. Board leaders speak up, and out, about issues that impact their mission and their organization’s capacity to meet it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

On the Right Track – Perhaps!

It won’t go down as my greatest speaking performance ever, but a recent opportunity to share some of my research on board learning at the UW Graduate Student Symposium provided a bit of a rush nonetheless.

The reason: a warm reception to the ideas behind the research I was describing – and the dissertation research on nonprofit board learning that lies along the horizon.

My talk described qualitative research conducted last summer, a case study focusing on nonprofit board meetings as learning events. A local board welcomed me into its fold for a brief ("brief" for qualitative research) exploration of a strong, diligent governing body learning in action. What I found, in a very short period of time, was quite intriguing and exciting. (I’ll save the themes that emerged for a future entry.)

The Q&A that followed included multiple expressions of support for the foundational idea: that board learning is far more comprehensive, and far richer, than the out-of-context training events that most of us summon in our minds. Audience comments also encouraged me to continue to explore practical ways to communicate whatever I learn in the research process, to benefit nonprofit boards.

Among the possibilities I’m envisioning: print, electronic and in-person sharing of key ideas, including recommendations for how to use that information; new strategies for recruiting board members; different frameworks for defining board member responsibilities and assessing individual and group performance; recommendations for enhancing formal experiences like training events and retreats; development of resources for nonprofit boards interested in learning; and, ultimately, a comprehensive board development model.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Mission Moments

Suppose that your board heeds Earl Nightingale’s call to “become what we think about” (see Monday’s entry) and decides to be more deliberate in focusing on mission. It sounds good. It sounds downright exciting. But…

The agenda for your next meeting is more than action-packed – filled with budget approvals, personnel policy updates, proposal approvals, etc. Where in the world will you find time to delve into the reason behind it all? There is plenty of room to debate whether we’re structuring our meetings as effectively as possible. For today, though, let me offer up an idea that your board may find workable: the mission moment.

A “mission moment” involves taking time – not a lot of time – to set aside the routine and learn about the ways in which your organization is working toward its mission. Look for ways to illustrate your story for your board. Share a case study, an individual or group who received support from your organization – or, better yet, invite the client to share the story in person. Read testimonials, kudos and letters of thanks. Find creative ways to illustrate progress made by the program, beyond the usual graphs and charts. Invite front-line staff to share brief presentations on the work they do on a daily basis.

These breaks do not need to consume vast amounts of time. But their potential to energize, to make what the nonprofit does real, is significant.

How would you use your mission moment? Please share your ideas in a comment.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Becoming and Thinking

"We become what we think about."

That quote by Earl Nightingale, which has gotten me through some of my greatest life challenges, serves a slightly different purpose today: inspiring me to focus on exciting new opportunities that lie ahead.

I’m working hard to keep my eye on my future (doctoral work – including dissertation research -- and a new life chapter that will follow that major accomplishment) while juggling multiple daily responsibilities. Some days are easier than others, but I know the investment will pay deep dividends in the long run. I also know that the ‘extras’ that take up so much of my limited free time – like that fast-approaching dissertation – ultimately feed my mind and spirit as I anticipate the future.

My eyes wandered to a copy of the Nightingale quote posted above my desk the other day. It occurred to me that these words also have potential to inspire nonprofits – and nonprofit leaders – to be more deliberate in making sure that they are making time to think about the future. It’s a challenge, to be sure. So many urgent needs of today fill our meeting agendas, demanding our attention and quick decision. We must attend to those important issues, but we must be diligent in creating and using time to think together about the future. It shouldn’t be a once-a-year kind of phenomenon, either. Boards create a better future – for their organization and those it serves – by thinking about and preparing for it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Emerging Board Structure Trends, Options

A recent edition of Charity Channel’s Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review hit home for me, because I seem to be living many of the key concepts the author described.

In “Board Structure: Current Trends and Options,” Alice Collier Cochran described some of the ways in which the shape and function of nonprofit governing bodies are changing.

As I read through each of the trends she listed, I reflected on how they were represented in my experiences serving on the board of a new nonprofit here in Laramie. In a very real way, we exemplify the emerging board that Cochran describes. For example:

We are much smaller than many of the boards of my past, with only seven members on our current membership list. That’s both a good thing and a not-so-good thing. As we’re reminded every day, there’s a lot of work involved in creating an organization from the ground up. It’s exciting work, to be sure. But it also means that everyone must be actively involved in the process and committed to the work, and that we must be especially attentive to some of the issues that appear elsewhere on Cochran’s list (e.g., accountability, member engagement, finance, focus on policy and strategy).

One of the moves of which I am most proud is our board’s decision to establish a leadership team, also part of Cochran’s lists of emerging trends. This group is charged with helping us focus on the big picture and use our limited meeting time effectively. We want to avoid becoming a surrogate board, particularly since the board itself is so small. But so far, I believe the leadership team is succeeding at keeping our eyes on the future and the important work we want to do, while also focusing on the immediate organizational tasks at hand.

I have high aspirations for this board, the organization it serves and the mission toward which we all work. One of my ‘to dos’ for the board -- board development – makes Cochran’s list. Our challenge to fully realizing this is a common one for boards: too little time to cover too many responsibilities. But ultimately, I believe that board development is an investment in the future, giving us strength to serve as effectively as we can. Finding creative ways to engage our individual and collective brains and linking what we learn to our work for the organization is the important challenge.

I’d encourage you to read Cochran’s article, found by clicking on the link above, and reflecting on how your own board might be fit the structural trends she identifies.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Addressing Issues of Public Trust

In a thought-provoking article that appeared in the summer 2004 issue of Nonprofit Quarterly, author Diana Aviv discussed several key contributors to declining public trust in the sector:
  • Sector growth. It is out pacing available resources.
  • A lack of common standards. Perpetuating this challenge is the diversity of organizations, missions and operations within the sector.
  • Doing ‘business’ in the current fiscal climate. Public sector budgets are shrinking faster than philanthropic expansion. Alternative funding sources are needed.
  • Inadequate oversight and structural problems. Existing federal and state laws are not enforced.
  • Inadequate reporting on the sector. Identifying abuses is challenging within existing reporting structures.
  • Media scrutiny. High profile fraud and mismanagement cases have hurt the sector as a whole.

Aviv offered five recommendations for addressing those public trust issues:

  • Promote transparency. Find ways to identify and separate abusers from the ethical majority in the sector.
  • Demand stronger enforcement and oversight. Advocate for improved federal and state oversight and enforcement processes.
  • Improve self-regulation. Initiate a national effort to develop uniform standards of good practice.
  • Improve the practice of individual nonprofits. Individual organizations must be prepared to take voluntary action to become more accountable in key areas (e.g., governance, transparency, fund-raising, conflicts of interest).
  • Increase awareness. The sector must take steps to educate the public, policymakers and opinion leaders about the sector and its issues – including accountability.

One of the better starting points I’ve found for exploring accountability is Independent Sector’s overview of the issue, found here.