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Who You Need on Your Nonprofit Board

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By Jess Woloszyn

nonprofit-board

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Published August 12, 2022 Reading Time: 5 minutes

“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. 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, what members of the board are needed for a nonprofit organization, and how to define board positions, whether you’re starting from scratch or revamping an existing group.

How to Build a Board of Directors for Nonprofits

What Does a Nonprofit Board Do?

A social impact organization’s board of directors is a governing body that exists to support the organization in its mission by providing high-level guidance. The IRS requires all tax-exempt organizations to have a board to ensure they have independent oversight.

How many board members should a nonprofit have?

The average size of a board is about 15 people, the median is about 13 members. As you’re getting started, think about the core group of members that you can place your trust in to help you expand your board in time and maintain board governance.

The breadth of your board really depends on your organization’s size and needs. Most state laws require a minimum number of board members required for incorporation when you start a nonprofit. For example, to start a nonprofit organization in California, it’s recommended to have at least three members.

“Under California law, a nonprofit board may be composed of as few as one director, but the IRS may take issue with granting recognition of 501(c)(3) status to a nonprofit with only one director. It is commonly recommended that nonprofits have between three and 25 directors.” – California Association of Nonprofits

What is the value of your nonprofit board?

The National Council of Nonprofits summarizes the board’s role as: “rather than steer the boat by managing day-to-day operations, the board provides foresight, oversight, and insight.”

When you focus on the small parts of something, you may not take in the bigger picture. Consider a forest with many smaller trees. 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 program’s staff are on the ground taking care of day-to-day operations, the board responsibilities shape 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. 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, each member is expected to use their professional network and sometimes their personal wealth to help the nonprofit meet its financial goals.

How often does a board meet?

How often your board meets will depend on your unique situation, but many boards meet either monthly or quarterly. You’ll want to plan these meetings around key initiatives and decisions you’ll need alignment on before major milestones in a year. For example, it would be great to schedule a board meeting in July or August that’s focused on planning ahead of the year-end giving season and Giving Tuesday.

Build the Right Board

While having a board is a basic requirement for the nonprofit sector, all boards are not created equal. A strong board can make the activities of the 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 entire board. The team at Draper Richards Kaplan helps grantees create a “board map,” explained Tom Fry. This exercise outlines the roles of the board to be filled and the kinds of advisors that would be most effective.

Nonprofit Board Positions

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.”

Many nonprofits will use the following structure or similar to establish their board:

  • Chair or president: This individual will oversee your board’s work and leadership team, working closely with your executive directors and senior members to carry out plans
  • Vice chair or vice president: This individual sits on the leadership team to focus on special tasks or requests of the chair and fill in if needed
  • Secretary: This person attends your board meetings and ensures minutes are recorded accurately, and the organizaiton’s bylaws are complied with
  • Treasurer: This person leads the organization’s financial management and will often be the chair of the finance committee, keeping track of all financial reporting and elevating an annual audit review

You may also define roles or board committees that focus on:

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

Define an Ideal Board Member for Your Nonprofit

When a baseball coach looks for players, he or she 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:  a pitcher, a catcher, a shortstop, outfielders, and the rest.

As you search for new board members or staff members, it’s important to define the important 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.

Example:

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.

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.

How Can I Find Board Members for My Nonprofit?

Individuals looking to sit on a board often seek out opportunities across job boards, within their networks, and on LinkedIn. Candidates will typically look for organizations they’re interested in serving, get in touch with that organization about the opportunity, and share what they believe they can contribute as they move through the hiring process.

Your nonprofit board members should bring a variety of skill sets 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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