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Who You Need on Your Nonprofit Board


By Allison Gauss

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Published December 20, 2016 Reading Time: 4 minutes

The board. These two words strike fear into the hearts of many nonprofit professionals. For others, they elicit visions of intimidating movers and shakers or a stubborn collection of old-timers. Whatever stereotype pops into your head when you think of a nonprofit board of directors, one fact remains constant: you can’t pursue your mission without one.

“If you want to succeed at social entrepreneurship, or in the for-profit side, you are going to have to build out a strong board,” said Tom Fry, managing director of the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation at a 2016 Collaborative panel discussion. An investor in young social enterprises and nonprofits, Draper Richards Kaplan helps social impact organizations grow, assemble a board of experienced experts, and secure later-stage funding.

Read on to learn why the right board is so instrumental and how you can build your ideal board, whether you’re starting from scratch or revamping an existing group.

The Board Basics

A social impact organization’s board of directors exists to support the organization in it’s mission through providing high-level guidance. The IRS requires all tax-exempt organizations to have a board to ensure they have independent oversight. Although the average size of a board is about sixteen people, the breadth of your board really depends on your organization’s size and needs. How often your board meets will also depend on your unique situation, but many boards meet either monthly or quarterly. The National Council of Nonprofits summarizes the board’s role as: “rather than steer the boat by managing day-to-day operations, board members provide foresight, oversight, and insight.”

Consider the saying about missing the forest for the trees. It means that when you focus on the small parts of something, you may not take in the bigger picture. Your staff has to spend most of their time focused on the trees. Your board of directors, however, takes a higher-level view to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. For example, while your programs staff are on the ground taking care of day-to-day operations, the board shapes your strategy and might steer your programs toward different approaches to the problem.

This need for long-term, big picture thinking and execution is why many organizations recruit a board of directors with significant experience and accomplishments in business and philanthropy. Board members also often have experience generating financial support, as this is a very important task they take on for the nonprofit. Although the director of development will lead many fundraising initiatives, nonprofit board members are expected to use their professional network and sometimes their personal wealth to help the nonprofit meet its financial goals.

Build the Right Board

While having a board is a basic requirement for any nonprofit, all boards are not created equal. A strong board can make your organization more sustainable and successful in achieving your mission. As such, it is worth investing time and research to recruit the right people to guide your social impact organization.

In fact, when the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation asked their grantees what the most helpful aspect of their partnership was, they pointed to the foundation’s assistance in building out the board. The team at Draper Richards Kaplan helps grantees create a “board map,” explained Tom Fry. This exercise outlines the roles to be filled and the kinds of advisors that would be most effective.

For example, Fry believes that nonprofit CEOs should make sure they have a “later-stage entrepreneur” on their board, as this person can serve as a thought-partner and thought-leader for their own professional development. He also advises that nonprofits have a “strategy consultant,” or “somebody that can help you think about developing the strategic plan that you’re going to need to attract later-stage funding.”

Define Your Roles

When a baseball coach looks for players, he doesn’t just pick anyone who runs fast or throws the ball hard. While these general skills are important, the coach ultimately needs to fill a roster: he needs a pitcher, a catcher, a short stop, outfielders, and the rest.

As you search for all-star board members, it’s important to define the roles you need them to play. For example, you will likely need some people with the connections and skills to facilitate fundraising and sponsorship opportunities. But, depending on your cause, you may also need someone with a keen understanding of government processes or an education or research expert.

Ask what connections, resources, and skills you need from your board and create different roles to fill. To ensure candidates are prepared to take on these duties, define a job description and circulate it in your community.


Funding Chair, Board of Directors

The Awesome Organization

The Awesome Organization is seeking a Funding Chair for our board of directors. He or she will be responsible for meeting the board’s fundraising and sponsorship goals. The selected candidate will also offer guidance to the development director in fundraising campaigns, major gifts, and corporate partnerships.

It’s easier to approach and recruit a potential board member when you can clearly explain the role. You can even post your open board positions to job websites or circulate them with local business associations. Finding what you need is a lot easier when you know what you are looking for.

You may also define roles on the board that focus on…

  • Marketing and PR
  • Hiring and organizational planning
  • Donor and community engagement

As you recruit for these roles, keep in mind which of your team members will be working with each board member and consider getting their insight and feedback. You should also meet and interview potential board members to determine if they are a good fit for your nonprofit.

Your board members should bring a variety of skillsets and experiences to your organization. Serving as mentors, coaches, and consultants, the right board helps you accomplish your goals, pursue your mission, and create a sustainable business model.

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