Why Isn’t My Board Better?

Keeping up with the Jones’ is about as American as Apple Pie and baseball.  I sense it is alive and well in the nonprofit world, too. Specifically, I hear nonprofit leaders often whispering, “Why isn’t my board better?” “Why can’t we do the kind of high impact things in our community that others do?” “How can I improve our board so they act like those guys?” Is it possible to actually improve Board Effectiveness?

First of all, remember you’re not stuck, even if you have to deal with your current board. There are things you can do to improve board performance without adding or removing directors — although that may be your long term plan. There’s always things you can do to help improve your current board.

Keep in mind, it takes commitment to get better. 

Turning around a huge tanker ship takes time. Improving board effectiveness may seem almost as difficult. Try not to expect immediate results. You may be dealing with a changing culture, and that is always a tricky road. Make sure you stay consistent so the directors know that going back to the old ways of operating is not an option. Here are a few of the top challenges you’ll need to tackle to make this big switch:

 1. Create a Culture Of Accountability

  • If directors fail to meet their commitments without being questioned, they will quickly learn that commitments are optional. Create expectations and communicate that you expect them to follow through on their promises in the future. Lack of accountability weakens the board overall and board meetings will turn into feel good sessions without accomplishing anything significant.
  • Healthy boards conduct annual board self-assessments and individual director reviews. These are valuable opportunities for the board chair and you, the executive director, to discuss board or individual performance and follow through in a safe, open environment.

2.   Provide New Director Orientation and Periodic Board Training

  • Create a shared understanding and agreement between directors, chair, and executive director on what acceptable board/director performance looks like. This can be one of the most vital keys in improving board effectiveness.
  • New directors with little or no previous board experience rarely understand how nonprofits work and can be  unaware of their responsibilities and duties. Create a robust orientation program so they can quickly step into their roles. 

For help creating a great Board Orientation program, grab this free resource.

  • Current board members need periodic retraining to stay current. Develop a training program designed to re-engage directors.
  • Offer periodic reminders of what each board member agreed to do as a director.
  • Board committees can quickly grow out of their original purpose or stagnate. Work to create clear responsibilities and assignments.

3. Healthy turnover is a great opportunity to move things in a new or better direction.

  • Consider the directors, executive committee, committee chairs, and the board chair.
  • Term limits help keep the board fresh and stocked with people with new ideas.
  • Some boards like to live off of their solid past reputation, but can often slowly become stagnant. Try to continually add new individuals to the board — especially those that may have a differing perspective from the status quo.
  • If business-as-usual attitude takes over leadership, it can cause the board chair and committee chairs to downshift their efforts to a maintenance mode only. Encourage your board members to challenge “old ideas.”
  • Some long term directors simply go into “retirement” without actually leaving the board. Keep things moving forward by making changes as needed to keep your board forward-thinking, open-minded, and creative.
  • Push all board members to do their share, so a few don’t end up doing all the work, get burned out, and eventually leave.

4. A New Board Structure May Be Needed

  • Is it the right board for right now? You may be able to improve board effectiveness with a little in-house “shake-up”. Some board members may no longer be a good fit for where the agency is in its life cycle and what the agency is facing in the future. The team of directors that helped make the agency successful over the past five years may not be the right composition for the next five years. Review your board periodically and be willing to make the tough decisions necessary to keep the board fresh and effective.
  • It may be time to rethink your board candidate identification and recruitment efforts. Have they lacked the rigor and effectiveness needed to better evaluate candidates?

5. Create a Shared Vision For The Future Among The Board and Leadership

  • A lack of clear direction or an agreed upon strategic plan means directors are not sure where the agency is headed making it hard to govern and make decisions.
  • Sometimes, director assignments made during board meetings are unclear or get lost after the meeting.
  • Clear deadlines are not established when an assignment is made.

Sometimes boards underperform because leaders lack the moral courage to confront poor performance or a lack of engagement by directors. When problems exist, straight talk between key people is critical. No accusations or finger-pointing are needed, just straight talk about what is happening (or, not happening) and the consequences if nothing changes. Improving board effectiveness is not easy, but it is possible.

Remember, positive change can take time, so it’s vital to start as soon as possible. Be clear in your strategy for change. Communicate your plan and desired results, and why the need for change is so important. Paint a picture for your team of where your agency is headed. Change — especially change that involves people — can be an difficult process. If you’re hesitant to begin, ask yourself this. Where will my agency (and board) be if we don’t change?

Is your nonprofit (or board) in trouble?

Find out with the Break Through nonprofit assessment.