Board Chairs Need to Prepare

In a recent survey* of 645 Board chairs of nonprofit organizations, 51% said they had NO training for their leadership role.


As the top volunteer at a nonprofit, the chair must be ready to lead in a variety of different situations and the chair should have a good understanding of effective governance. A chair must be able to handle people with skill and diplomacy, build consensus, and communicate with many different stakeholders.  A chair must be able to lead, solve problems. chart new territory, and act in the best interest of the organization.

How does a chair get this training?

Mentorship from a previous skilled chair is one of the best ways. If that is not available, there are resources online (e.g. BoardSource), local workshops (e.g. Hodges Center for Nonprofit Excellence for those of you in Southwest Florida), and consultants who can deliver specific training or coaching for the chair or the entire board.

Look ahead. Who will succeed the current board chair? If you don’t have any good (and willing) candidates on the board for future officers and for chair, find new people who will be able to learn the organization and who also have the skills to lead. Provide training opportunities for future officers and chairs.

If you are thinking that this takes too much time and effort, think about what can happen if you end up with a really bad board chair. There are several types, from the bully who does not build consensus but makes decisions on his or her own, to the invisible chair who really doesn’t have time to be chair, and comes unprepared, if at all. There is also the terminator, who feels the only way to make his mark on the organization is to fire someone (often the CEO or the Development Director), causing harmful turmoil for the organization.

See my archived articles for more on board recruitment and effective governance.

* Study conducted by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management in 2016.

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6 Questions to Ask Before You Join a Nonprofit Board

Ask the Governance Guru

Part 3 in a series of governance posts

As a nonprofit executive director or board chair, you should be prepared for your prospective board member to ask you some critical questions. They may ask about the board’s weaknesses, what your expectations are, and what makes your organization unique. Below are some questions you want to be able to answer about the organization.

6 Questions to Ask Before You Join a Nonprofit Board

  1. Who is on the board now? How did they get there?
  2. How long are the terms?
  3. What committees exist? Who is on them? Are they active?
  4. What is the organization’s financial situation?What is the annual operating budget? What are the top revenue streams and the largest expense categories? Is there a deficit? Does the organization have an annual audit and has it consistently been in good standing? Are there any outstanding legal issues going on with the agency?
  5. What are the expectations of board members?Are there written expectations as to financial commitment, involvement in fundraising, meeting attendance?
  6. What does the board leadership look like? Does the board include members who are eager and capable of moving into new leadership roles on the board?

Be honest in answering these questions. Be clear about the commitment and any weaknesses that the board can help address. It is important that relationships with all board members is based on transparency and open communication.

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8 Questions to Ask Potential Board Members

Ask the Governance Guru

Part 2 in a series of governance posts

We’ve all heard stories of board recruitment gone wrong…

The person who was asked to join by his golf buddy because they have fun golfing…the resume-builder who is a name on the letterhead but is not an active board member…or the bully who has come and gone from several boards but no one bothered to check with those other organizations.

To help avoid some of these disasters, here are…

8 Questions to Ask Potential Board Members

  1. Why are you interested in serving on this board?
  2. What attracts you to our mission?
  3. What are some of your prior board leadership experiences?
  4. What other boards are you on now?
  5. What skills, connections, resources and expertise do you have to offer and are willing to use on the behalf of the organization?
  6. Do you have any concerns about joining the board?
  7. How much time a month can you commit to meetings and serving the mission?
  8. What are your expectations from the management of the nonprofits where you’ve served as a board member?
  9. Are you willing to make a financial commitment that is a stretch?

These questions get to the heart of what it means to be a board member. It is also a good idea to try to verify some of these answers, possibly by talking with the CEO of another organization on whose board this person has served. Next we’ll share some questions that board members should ask before they agree to join a board.

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About Advisory Boards

Ask the Governance Guru
Part 1 in a series of governance posts

Many questions I receive are on the subject of Advisory Boards…

“What is the role of an advisory board? How often should it meet and how does it relate to the main board?”

An advisory board can be used for many different purposes. Let’s start with what it is not: it is not a governing board, It has no legal or fiduciary standing like your governing board does.

What is the role of an advisory board? 

There are many possible roles, depending on what you need. (Additional auxiliary boards may include Honorary Board, Emeriti Board, and other special purpose groups.)

1. Provide professional expertise or community linkages. Depending on your mission, you may want to include a representative from the school district, local government, a mental health professional or other professionals on you advisory board.

2. Keep valuable former board members involved.
Term limits are important in order to bring new ideas and connections onto your organization’s board, but sometimes you really hate to see a board member leave this role! Inviting them to serve on the advisory board is a way to keep them involved while opening up a board seat to a fresh face.

3. Involve top donors or community leaders without the time commitment of serving on the governing board
Let’s face it, a board commitment is time consuming and a strong community leader or philanthropist may not have the time to fulfill all the exceptions required of board members.

How often should an advisory board meet?

This depends on the purpose of the advisory board. Usually twice per year is enough, although it can be quarterly if the role is to provide insight on community issues. These can be special meetings of the advisory board only, or a joint meeting with the governing board.  The agenda can include an update on progress toward goals from the CEO and then discussion about a few areas where the organization is seeking advice and input.  Generally I recommend one year terms that are renewable upon mutual agreement between the advisory board member and the CEO and executive committee. These are not elected positions like the governing board. Be clear as to whether advisory board members are invited to attend regular board meetings or not.
Where does the advisory board fit in our organizational chart?

Advisory board members do not have a vote on board issues.  They are not the legal governing board; their role is advisory.  They are a resource for the CEO. If you keep your advisory board updated, go to them as a group or individually for advice and connections, then you will have a group of strong advocates extending your reach into the community.

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Tune-up for better results

Is your nonprofit organization running on all cylinders? Or are there areas that need a tune-up? Call us if you answer “no” to any of the questions below.

1. Is your strategic plan current?

2. Do you have an effective development plan?  Are you receiving the funds you need to achieve your goals?

3. Do you segment your donor list and use different methods and messages for different types of donors?

4. Do you have the board you need to accomplish your mission?

5. Do you need help with a board recruitment strategy or engaging the board members you have more effectively in governance and fundraising?

Questions? A free consultation is just a phone call away.

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Recruit the Board You Need

Debbie Mathews Finch and I recently did a session for our local United Way agencies about Best Practices in Board Recruitment. In case you missed it, here are some highlights. Contact us if you would like us to come talk to your board about how to recruit the board you need to accomplish your goals! – Susan Suarez

Recruit the Board You Need

Top performing boards are a key ingredient in top performing organizations, and it all starts with who is sitting around the boardroom table. Board recruitment does not happen once per year…it is something you need to be constantly working on to find and retain the board members you need.

1. Get your house in order:  Do you have:
– a 
Nominating Committee that is constantly trolling for talent?
– Written Board job description, expectations, committee descriptions, term limits, conflict of interest policy?

2. Understand what Key Board Competencies your organization needs

These are the skills, talents, traits that your organization needs in its board to help it reach its goals. These competencies should be linked to your strategic plan. What do you need today, and what will you need in the future?

3. Create a BVP: Board Value Proposition

Why would someone with the key competencies you need want to join your board? What is special about your organization? What do you offer board members? Here is an example:

“We are seeking board members who want to be part of an organization that provides world class youth development programs. Our organization is poised for growth geographically and in the scope of the services it provides. Our board members are trained in exceptional governance practices and are important strategists for our work in the community.”

4.  Where to find board members

Start with your closest supporters: donors, people who attend your events, and your volunteers. Then moving out from there, talk to people at churches, universities, leadership programs, and those who serve on other nonprofit boards. This should be a constant activity where you are seeking to learn more about various people’s interest in your organization and their relevant skills.

5. Interviewing potential board members

The interviewing team should be no more than 3 people: the executive director, the board chair, and someone from the nominating committee. Questions should be centered around the prospects interests and their skills (to see if they fit with your key competencies). This is also the time to share information about your organization – its mission, its vision for the future, who it serves and its accomplishments.

6. Selection of the candidate

Once you have interviewed a few prospects, the nominating committee should consider several factors in making its selection and recommendation to the Board:

—- Review the key competencies
—- Commitment to mission
—- Fit with the board
—- Committed to board expectations
—- Objectivity
—- Diversity
—- Red flags?
—- References? Other boards?

If someone may not be the right fit for the board at the moment, you may want to invite them to serve on a committee. This gives you both a chance to get to know each other better.

7. Board Orientation

Don’t miss this important step! Once you bring on a new board member, you want them to be able to start to contribute right away, and a strong orientation is vital to making that happen. In addition to reviewing details about the organization in more depth, be sure to go over the board calendar, committee assignment, and the conflict of interest policy. Have a board member take the new member to lunch sometime after the first meeting. And teach the new member all about board recruitment so he/she can help with the keeping the pipeline of board prospects full.

8.  Call us today to schedule a presentation on this topic (or other governance issues) for your entire board!

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Yes! Your Board Can Fundraise!

Nearly every nonprofit organization would like their board to be more involved in fundraising.

Why is this such a common struggle? There are several different reasons. I find these three to be widespread:

1. Board members may not understand their role

Board members often think that fundraising is cold-calling people and asking for money — and they want no part of that! Well let me tell you, neither do I! Cold-calling someone who has no connection to you or the organization is very ineffective.

Many years ago, I worked with a wonderful woman named Shirley, She was a board member who swore to me she was a terrible fundraiser. But she came in to talk to me about inviting a few friends over to her house for tea to talk about the organization and how it is helping the community.  We raised thousands of dollars that afternoon, and made many new friends who later became donors. Shirley did not perceive that party as fundraising because it was an easy activity for her!

Many board members do not realize that development encompasses a range of activities, including introducing people to the organization, helping them understand what the organization’s impact is, thanking donors, setting an example with their own giving, being an ambassador, and much more.  It is the staff’s job to meet with board members to help them find the best match for their skills, time, and interest, and then provide training, support and encouragement along the way.

2. Board members may not be given training

Fundraising is a skill that can be taught. What are the best-selling auction items at an event? What is the process to cultivate a major donor? What are the most effective ways to communicate your mission? What is planned giving all about? Provide training so that your board members feel more comfortable with a variety of development activities. Training can be done at every board meeting, and also at an annual board retreat.

3. The organization did not recruit board members based on their ability or interest in fundraising.

I’m sure you have heard these lines before – “I was asked to be on a board and they said I don’t really have to do much.”  Or, “Let’s ask Joe to be on the board because he is my neighbor and he is a great guy.” Be intentional with your board recruitment. Examine what your needs are and recruit for those skills and qualities. Then be open and honest with your prospective board members about your expectations with regard to fundraising, attendance, giving, and more.

When you seem to be stuck with board members who are not involved in fundraising, stop and examine what you are doing to help them become more involved.

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Sharpen Your Strategy

In my work with nonprofit organizations and foundations across the country I have seen a variety of themes emerge during the strategic planning process.

1. Growth: What kind? How much?

Growth can occur in many ways, such as mergers, geographic expansion, diversification in services, and adding capacity to serve more people with the same services you now offer.  

Growth means you are serving more people, and often leads to operating efficiencies, increased visibility and a larger impact.  Most growth strategies require careful management of human resources (paid and volunteer), communication, and infrastructure.

2. Simplify

This theme often comes into play when an organization realizes it has taken on too much and has lost its focus.  The solution may be spin out programs that are not core to the mission.

3. Identify success factors

Here an organization seeks to identify its competitive advantage and focus on a few factors that are critical to its success. These factors could include having the trust of its clients, parental involvement, results, innovation, and more. In pursuing this strategy, it is important to understand how every part of the organization supports these success factors.

4. Shift focus to root causes

Sometimes dealing with the symptoms does not seem to move the needle on fixing the problem. That’s when organizations may decide to shift their programming to work further upstream — to get at the root cause of an issue. This may include advocacy, public policy work, research, and prevention programs.

5. Be innovative

When an  organization has seen success in its programs, it may decide to try a different spin – a new teaching method, a new delivery system, a different schedule, new use of technology, and more. The organization that pursues this strategy must be willing to take a few risks and be a learn from both what works and what doesn’t work.

Call me today to see how strategic planning can focus the energy of the staff and board and rekindle the fire and to pursue your mission with commitment and passion.

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Take time to plan

I recently broke a bone in my foot. No, this is not a plea for sympathy. I was forced to slow down and this frustrated me to the max. But as days turned into weeks, I came to appreciate the time my lack of mobility gave me to reflect, prioritize and plan my work and my life.

We all know that planning is important, but sometimes the busy-ness of your everyday workload makes it seem impossible.

But being sure you are busy working on the right things is worth the time.

Many organizations find that they have added programs over the years, or continue long-standing programs because they have always done them. But do these programs still make sense today? Do they work well together so that they are greater than the sum of the parts?

A few key questions will get your organization’s planning juices flowing.

How has our clientele or target population changed in the past several years? How will it continue to change?

Does our mix of programs make sense today for our clientele?  Will they still make sense 5 years?

What additional resources (staff, volunteers, board members, funding) will we need to meet the needs of our target population in the future? Are we poised to be able to have those resources?

Now ask yourself these same questions regarding your donors. Has your donor base changed? Will it? Does it need to?

Does your mix of development and communication strategies fit with tomorrow’s donor base or yesterday’s?

Are your activities aligned with your goals? It can be difficult to answer that question until you take time to plan.

Don’t wait until you break your foot!  Call me today with your questions about strategic planning.

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Great Governance, Great Strategy, Great Results

It all starts with governance — your board of directors. Exceptional organizations have exceptional boards who understand their crucial role in…

     linking bold visions and ambitious plans

to financial support, expertise and networks of influence.

How to get there? 

Share the 12 Principles of Great Governance* and thoughtfully assess where and how your board and your organization can improve its work.  (*BoardSource)

We can facilitate the conversation that delves into the 12 principles, help you identify areas for focused improvement and guide you through a strategic improvement process.

Exceptional boards govern in constructive partnership with the chief executive, recognizing that the effectiveness of the board and chief executive are interdependent.

Exceptional boards shape and uphold the mission, articulate a compelling vision, and ensure the congruence between decisions and core values.

Exceptional boards allocate time to what matters most and continuously engage in strategic thinking to hone the organization’s direction.

Exceptional boards institutionalize a culture of inquiry, mutual respect, and constructive debate that leads to sound and shared decision making.

Exceptional boards are independent minded. When making decisions, board members put the interests of the organization above all else.

Exceptional boards promote an ethos of transparency by ensuring that donors, stakeholders, and interested members of the public have access to appropriate and accurate information regarding finances, operations, and results.

Exceptional boards promote strong ethical values and disciplined compliance by establishing appropriate mechanisms for active oversight.

Exceptional boards link bold visions and ambitious plans to financial support, expertise, and networks of influence.

Exceptional boards are results‐oriented. They measure the organization’s advancement towards mission and evaluate the performance of major programs and services.

Exceptional boards intentionally structure themselves to fulfill essential governance duties and to support organizational priorities.

Exceptional boards embrace the qualities of a continuous learning organization, evaluating their own performances and assessing the value they add to the organization.

Exceptional boards energize themselves through planned turnover, thoughtful recruitment, and inclusiveness.

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