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6 Functions of an Effective Board

My observations from the other side of the (boardroom) table

by Jill Tatum • May 2018

One of my favorite parts of my job as a Program Director is making site visits with organizations. That’s when I get to hear in person about all of the excellent work being done by nonprofits in our region. Of course all of this excellent work doesn’t happen without good leadership. Over the years, I have grown in my appreciation for the important role a board plays in the life, health, energy, and development of these nonprofit organizations.

Each board is different. Some boards, especially of younger organizations, have a “roll-up-your-sleeves-and-grab-a-paintbrush” attitude. This approach is often essential to getting organizations off the ground before the business model is developed. Other board members are recruited for their ability to financially support the organization’s programming. And most boards fall somewhere in between the two.

But all healthy boards have some things in common. Below I’ve listed some important components and functions of an effective board. When these are present, it gives an organization the best chance to thrive.

Provide mission and vision oversight.

An organization’s mission guides its programming and future direction. The board shepherds that mission and specific board members should be recruited for that task. If you’re serving on a board, you are likely known for possessing certain expertise and experience. Keep bringing those gifts to board meetings. These various vantage points and areas of earned wisdom help keep an organization from becoming an echo chamber or suffering from mono vision. If you are considering joining a board, this would be a great aspect to explore. Will you be valued for your experience and the unique training and skills you bring? If your job is to quietly rubber stamp the Executive Director or board chair, and not help shepherd the organization’s mission and vision, you may want to consider serving on a different board.

Support the Executive Director.

Just as the board is responsible to carefully steward the organization’s mission, it is also responsible to support the Executive Director, the only staff person it directly hires. The board gives important support to the Executive Director through offering encouragement, accountability, and insight. The Executive Director’s job is to take care of staff and help the board with recruitment, onboarding of new members, and the ongoing development of the group. In return, the board should make sure the Executive Director is taken care of. This includes ensuring the Executive Director is sufficiently compensated (within the means of the organization), and receives adequate paid vacation to avoid burnout. The Executive Director should also be encouraged to seek professional development opportunities that will help them stay fresh and relevant. Board members should care for the Executive Director, just as they expect the Executive Director to care for the organization’s staff.

Ask good questions.

While the Executive Director and staff are focused on serving clients and funding programs, board members usually have “day jobs” and are typically not involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization. But a healthy board knows the ins and outs of the organization’s programs and needs, and they view them from diverse vantage points. Since board members have their feet in several worlds, they can help keep the Executive Director from getting lost in the weeds of running the organization by asking good questions. Thoughtful questions posed by people from other arenas and experiences have a way of redirecting conversations and helping the organization reflect on what is possible. Good questions that invite creative discourse are almost always more productive than edicts.

Supply financial accountability.

One of the most important jobs a board has is to make sure the finances of an organization actually work. I‘ve had the unfortunate experience of seeing a new Executive Director get blindsided by a disastrous financial situation she inherited from her predecessor. It effectively prevented her from being able to do her job. The board should never have let that happen. If you’re on a board, take your role in financial oversight seriously. It is critical to the health of your organization. If the numbers don’t work, push back. It’s your responsibility to make sure the organization can operate during and beyond the life of its current Executive Director.

Facilitate connections.

Each board member brings a different circle of friends and business connections to the table. Some organizations call this being an ambassador or an advocate of the organization. While the Executive Director and development staff should cultivate those connections, board members bring a fresh list of contacts to the organization. This is another important role to consider when asked to serve on a board. Are you willing to bring your connections to the table?

Give financial support.

This is one aspect of board service that should not be overlooked or underplayed. Nothing says “I support this organization” more than actually supporting the organization with your financial resources. For most funders, including the Murdock Trust, support from all members of the board is important, even when an organization’s business model depends upon high levels of earned revenues or grant support. Unanimous support is more important than the specific amount given by each individual. If this is not part of your board’s culture, it should be re-examined and discussed.

If you are currently serving on a nonprofit board, or considering doing so, understand that nonprofits could not function well without good boards; they are critical to the life and health of an organization. Please know that your role is important to the funders who support your organizations and the people who the organization serves. Thank you for what you bring to the (boardroom) table.