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How to Get Beyond B-Minus: The State of Nonprofit Boards Today

If you were to assign a grade to the board on which you serve, what grade would you give it? Earlier this year BoardSource asked nonprofit CEOs to rate their boards. Their findings: boards earned a 2.65 or B- average — underwhelming results for the top leaders of their organizations and such high achieving individuals. This week’s guest blogger Anne Wallestead, Executive Director of Boardsource, shares all the details on where we are and how to change where we are going.  

 

How to Get Beyond B-Minus: The State of Nonprofit Boards Today

Earlier this year, BoardSource launched Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, which is a comprehensive scan of current nonprofit board practices, policies, and performance.

While there is lots of good news to share, the bottom line is that nonprofit leaders give nonprofit boards a “B minus” grade in overall performance. Leading with Intent explores why that is, and — more importantly — what we can do about it.

Here are a few of Leading with Intent’s key findings, and some advice about how we can get beyond B-minus:

Getting the people right is fundamental

Leading with Intent found that if a board isn’t thoughtfully comprised as it relates to skill sets, leadership styles, and diversity of thought and background, it is less likely to excel in other areas of board performance. But unfortunately:

  • Only 1 in 5 chief executives strongly agree that they have the right board members.
  • 58 percent of chief executives say it is difficult to find people to serve on the board — up from 44 percent in 2012.
  • Board diversity has improved slightly, but a full 25 percent of boards remain exclusively White.

What boards can do:

  • Make strategic board recruitment a priority. Make sure that your recruiting efforts are connected to your overall strategic vision and plan, and that you’re thinking through the skills, backgrounds, and networks you need to have as a part of your board’s composition. For step-by-step guidance on strategic board recruitment, check out BoardSource’s Board Recruitment Center.
  • Structure yourself for success. If your board doesn’t already have a governance committee responsible for leading and managing board recruitment and performance, consider creating one.

Boards need to get outside of their comfort zones

Leading with Intent found that boards do well at functions related to compliance and oversight, but face challenges with their strategic and external work. In an operating environment that is characterized by constant change, this is a wake-up call: Boards need to get outside of their comfort zones and provide stronger external leadership — especially in fundraising and advocacy — that enables their organizations to adapt and adjust to change.

What boards can do:

  • Set strong expectations. When talking to current and potential board members, be clear about the important external role that board members need to play in supporting your mission. Make sure that each individual board member is comfortable reaching out to his or her networks and spheres of influence, whether it’s about policy decisions that impact your mission, charitable support that you need to fuel your work, or community partnerships that you could build to magnify your impact. For more on the important role that board members can play in advocating for their missions, visit here.
  • Celebrate success. One of the secrets to engaging board members in activities that they may be nervous about is to thoughtfully celebrate successes whenever they take place. It reinforces how important those activities are, and creates pride of ownership and positive peer pressure within your board’s culture.

Investments in board development are worth the effort

Building and strengthening a board takes ongoing, intentional effort. Leading with Intent explores the pain points that many boards are experiencing, and highlights the important role that board self-assessment can play in improving board performance.

What boards can do:

  • Get serious about board development. Challenge your governance committee to craft a holistic board development program for your board, with thoughtful goals around recruitment, orientation and education, regular assessment, and board succession planning. BoardSource’s year-round board development program for organizational members provides a great foundation for this work, including an annual assessment tool.
  • Share your commitment to strong board performance. Organizations that take board leadership and governance seriously are stronger and more sustainable, and that’s something that donors and the public care about. Take a moment to share your board’s commitment to essential board leadership practices by updating the “People & Governance” section of your GuideStar Exchange Profile.

If we want nonprofit organizations positioned to deliver the kind of impact and results that our world needs, then B- boards aren’t going to cut it. We need to focus our energies and resources to support boards that are working diligently to strengthen their performance, and we need to challenge those that are not to set a higher bar for themselves and their missions.

We need our boards to strive to be A+ boards. That’s what our missions need, it’s what they deserve, and it’s what is within our reach if we commit to making it happen.

 

Anne Wallested was appointed by BoardSource’s board of directors in the summer of 2013, after having served as a key member of BoardSource’s leadership team for years. A seasoned nonprofit professional, Anne has held leadership positions with a number of local and national organizations. Prior to joining BoardSource’s leadership team in December 2008, she served as the vice president of development at the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Leadership Institute, where she helped facilitate – from the staff perspective – a strategic restructuring of the groups’ boards of directors and leadership. Anne is an experienced trainer and facilitator and has worked with boards and volunteer networks to strengthen volunteer management, events management, and fundraising skills. 

This post originally appeared on Boardsource’s Exceptional Boards blog.