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How Healthy Do You Want Your Nonprofit Board To Be?

When it comes to nonprofit board development, “I don’t have time,” “We don’t have the resources,” “How can I possibly think about strengthening the board when I’m worried about how we are going to deliver programs and meet payroll?” are some of the many excuses nonprofit leaders give for not focusing on the health of their board.  Its time to stop coming up with excuses, according to BoardSource’s CEO Anne Wallestead, our guest blogger this week, and start making your board healthy.  Thanks for your wisdom and advice Anne!

How Healthy Do You Want Your Nonprofit Board To Be?

Last spring, I had a tough conversation with my doctor. I’m diabetic and have to be very careful about my health — exercise, eat well, monitor my blood sugar, take insulin several times a day…the list goes on and on. For the most part, I do relatively well with all of this maintenance. But there are definitely places where I could do better.

As my doctor made suggestions about how I could improve my health, I squirmed in my seat a bit and made pathetic excuses about why I just couldn’t do more. “I travel a lot and can’t always choose what I eat,” I said. “I work long days and don’t always have time to exercise.” Whatever she suggested, I had a reason why it just wouldn’t work.

And then she looked at me and said, “Well, I guess it’s just a question of how healthy you want to be.”

Ouch! That hurt. But it was the truth. And I needed to hear it.

When it comes to nonprofit board development, many board members and CEOs throw up similar roadblocks to improved board performance. “I don’t have time.” “We don’t have the resources.” “How can I possibly think about strengthening the board when I’m worried about how we are going to deliver programs and meet payroll?”

These roadblocks don’t serve us, or our nonprofit organizations, well.

According to the Executive Director Listening Project conducted by the Meyer Foundation, “Strengthening the Board of Directors” is listed as a top challenge affecting executive directors’ personal and professional effectiveness (“fundraising” and “managing human capital” were the only two challenges ranked higher).

Can you imagine saying “I don’t have time to manage my staff” or “We don’t have the resources to fundraise”? No, it wouldn’t happen, because it’s understood we have to invest in these things for our organizations to flourish.

But for whatever reason, there is a disconnect when it comes to investing in our boards. According to the most recent “Daring to Lead” study, despite the fact that only 20 percent of executive directors are “very satisfied” with their nonprofit board’s performance, the majority of executive directors (56 percent) spend 10 hours or less on board-related activities each month. This finding is significant when you learn there is a striking correlation between the time CEOs invest in board work and overall satisfaction with the board — those who are the most satisfied invest significantly more time than those who are not at all satisfied.

But since time for time’s sake isn’t the point, I offer a few thoughts about how to leverage limited time for maximized impact:

1. Get it Right from the Beginning: Invest heavily in orienting and educating new board members, and making sure that they are the right fit before inviting them to the board. Be honest about your board’s expectations — regarding time, fundraising, and overall engagement — and resist the temptation to downplay them. You’ll save countless hours of misunderstanding and frustration by ensuring that they’re on board with organizational needs and board member expectations, and that they have the information and knowledge they need to help them succeed.

2. Assess Performance Before There’s a Problem: The board’s regular assessment of its own performance and the CEO’s performance identifies challenges and opportunities long before they become significant problems, and ensures that your organization has a roadmap to self-improvement and ongoing board development. BoardSource offers tools for both nonprofit board and CEO assessments if you need help.

3. Challenge the Board to Manage Itself: Build a strong governance committee that takes responsibility for managing and cultivating board performance. The committee can help maximize the effectiveness of each individual board member and address issues of disengagement or dysfunction head on. Not only does this share the workload, but it creates greater buy-in and accountability across the board.

So, just as my doctor challenged me to reconsider my values and the amount of time I invest in them, I challenge each of us: How healthy do we want our nonprofit boards to be? And what are we willing to do about it?


Anne Wallestead is the President and CEO of national nonprofit BoardSource,  one of the leading resources on governance available to the nonprofit community.  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. Anne is an experienced trainer and facilitator and has worked with boards and volunteer networks to strengthen volunteer management, events management, and fundraising skills. She has held leadership posts at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Iowa; the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network; and the Human Rights Campaign, where she was responsible for partnering with and training leaders in communities targeted for organizational expansion and growth. Anne serves on the board of Capital City Public Charter School and the regional advisory board for Drake University, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in sociology and English.