The Secret to Creating A High-Impact Nonprofit Board


A recurring theme with many of the nonprofit boards we advise is how they can be more effective in helping the organization achieve its goals. Often they assume that the answer lies in recruiting new members with specific skills, or the creation of some new committee.

With few exceptions, we rarely suggest they take either of these courses.

The answer for creating a high-impact nonprofit board is similar to that of creating a high-impact nonprofit organization—assume a thoughtful approach to your role.

The Thoughtful Nonprofit Board

A key element to any thoughtful process is being conscious of what you're spending your time focusing on.

In a recent post from McKinsey & Company, titled “High-Performing Boards: What’s on Their Agenda?”, the authors highlight the types of things that highly effective corporate boards focus their attention on. These strategies can also apply to nonprofit boards.

Prioritizing Issues

The authors’ research suggests that the degree to which a board is impactful depends on the types of issues they focus on and the amount of time they dedicate to doing so.

They suggest that, increasingly, impactful boards progress through a series of practices similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—from basic to advanced.

The boards we’ve known often begin by focusing on simple reviews of fundamental financial and compliance items. As they progress to a more advanced level, they begin to look at what drives value for the organization and consider alternative strategies to maximize effectiveness. The most successful boards we've worked with have established these practices as a minimum standard and have moved on to begin assessing their own processes and role in the organization’s strategy.

Time Commitment

A trend we've witnessed over the past few years is a move to fewer committees and board meetings, resulting in less time commitment.

We welcome the culling of committees and meetings that serve little or no purpose other than to inform members of updates or what’s already listed in the board packet. As McKinsey & Company’s research indicates, there’s a direct correlation between highly effective boards and the amount of time invested in their duties.

In our experience, those nonprofit boards that have the greatest impact are those that spend a greater proportion of their time on strategic planning, execution, and analysis.

This means having a living strategic plan that clearly links the organization’s top-level goals with the day-to-day activities of the organization and its volunteers, and revisiting/revising that plan, as necessary. It also means having board members actively engaged in supporting donor cultivation planning and activities. And it means ensuring members maintain a current and advanced knowledge of the news, issues, and practices of the organization’s mission.

Breaking Down Barriers to Higher Impact

In the most highly impactful organizations we’ve seen, the board and staff have extremely healthy working relationships with one another that are characterized by complete trust and transparency.

When we’ve suggested greater involvement, visibility, and time commitment by the boards of struggling organizations, we’ve witnessed considerable push-back from both sides, often stated as a concern that this practice would interfere with running of the organization.

As was found in McKinsey & Company’s research, we’ve seen that more engaged boards who work to foster a healthy and trusting relationship with their organizations, and who move beyond mindless reviews of basic data and become more actively involved in strategy and supporting revenue generation, tend to become much-needed partners of the organization and its leadership team.


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