Learn how to create clear roles and responsibilities for your board of directors, to get the results you want for your nonprofit.

From time to time executive directors express frustration about the support and cooperation they get from their board.“They don’t do what they say they’ll do”…“They won’t help me fundraise”… “They just sit there and look to me for all the answers”….“I feel like I have to do everything all by myself”….. Sound familiar? I hear this all to often from nonprofit leaders. You’re doing all you can, but somehow, your board just isn’t stepping upIt doesn’t have to be that way though. In fact, it should never be that way.

What should you expect from your board?

Just what is the role of the board of directors? What are those directors supposed to be doing besides taking up space? How can nonprofit leaders insure their board members are qualified, prepared, a good fit, engaged, and accountable?

We can address this challenge on two levels:

  • 1st — What are the role and duties of a board and its directors in general, and
  • 2nd — How can you get the most out of the current board?

Let’s begin with the role and overall duties of a nonprofit board. These duties apply to every nonprofit board, are non-delegable and in a few instances, even legally binding. An executive director should expect his or her board to adhere to these duties once the board and all directors have been properly trained (when they first join the board). Periodic refresher training is also highly recommended.

A board of directors has a responsibility to understand and fulfill its role and legal obligations. These include:

  • Upholding the agency’s Mission, Vision, Values—The board is the caretaker and protector of the agency’s purpose.
  • Adhering to its fiduciary responsibilities—acting in upmost good faith
  • Exercising its’ three Legal Duties-
    • Duty of CareExercising reasonable care in its decision-making
    • Duty of LoyaltyExercising undivided allegiance to the agency when making decisions
    • Duty of Obedienceto be faithful to the agency’s mission
  • Ensuring legal and ethical integrity
  • Enhancing the agency’s public standing
  • Protecting the assets and provide financial oversight
  • Building and sustaining a competent board around the strategic plan
  • Carrying out its governance and operational duties, as provided
  • Establishing clear expectations throughout
  • Developing and adhering to a strategic plan
  • Ensuring the agency is built and operating in conformance with the strategic plan —providing alignment of all resources and activities
  • Reviewing program and financial results

But what if your board isn’t following these guidelines? 

One solution is to carefully select new board candidates by looking for people who can bring something to the table in advancing the agency’s mission and strategic plan. You can use the Board Profile Worksheet to help insure the composition of the board is right, based on where you are taking the agency.

Another way is to carefully screen each new director candidate, insuring they fully understand their role as a director, the specific reasons they have been invited onto the board, and all of the requirements of service (donations, meeting attendance, etc).  The Board Orientation Checklist can help you cover those topics.

Using the checklist mentioned above, implement a New Director Orientation ProgramYou should have a system in place for on-boarding all new directors to your organization. 

The next step to get more out of each director, deals with their day to day performance. This is where the rubber meets the road and often times the source of director “buyer’s remorse” regarding performance.

These critical best practices should be implemented by either the board chair, the executive director, or both. They will help keep the board and its members on track and properly engaged in the business of the agency.

8 Critical Board Best Practices

  1. There should be a current director job description in place, reviewed and discussed with each new director.
  2. The board and each director should undergo a performance review each year. Any shortcomings or inconsistencies should be discussed at that time, if not earlier.
  3. The board should undergo periodic reorientation to be sure it is kept current on important facets of the agency that many not normally make it onto the board’s normal agenda.
  4. The executive director should informally meet with the board chair over lunch or coffee periodically, seeking feedback on his/her performance and to offer suggestions on areas where the board could be more helpful.
  5. When a problem or misunderstanding arises, it should be addressed immediately. Nothing is gained by holding back.
  6. Board meetings should be crisp and contain challenging, strategic level items along with any other important topics that need board attention. Boards loathe boring meetings which delve into boring details (like the color of the napkins for the annual gala). Individual directors will tune out when the discussion bets boring. If it happens too many times, they may even resign altogether.
  7. Let the committees do the heavy lifting and in-depth study of complex issues and report back to the board with its recommendations. Try to never bog down board meetings with overly detailed, complex issues unless a committee has previously delved into the topic and is prepared to brig the boar dup to speed for further discussion.
  8. Following a board or committee meeting, be sure all action items are clearly identified, and assigned to someone, including a deadline. This helps people understand they are being counted on to take some action and will be accountable at the next meeting.

The primary reason directors agreed to serve on the board is to advance the mission of the agency. They expect to have responsibilities; they expect to have to perform. They should be deployed in the most effective way possible and challenged to perform.

If a board member is not performing up to expectations, it may not be his or her fault. It may be just a misunderstanding or lack of clarity about expectations. Most board members want to perform, want to enhance the agency, and definitely want to know if their performance is less then desired. These issues are easily cleared up if handled quickly and with tact.

Board directors don’t expect to just sit around at meetings like a potted plant. They expect to be used wisely, so get them fully engaged right from the start, and they will develop healthy service habits and attitudes.

Discover how your board is doing, and find out if your nonprofit is on the right track with the Break Through quiz.