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How to Build a Strong Board of Directors
Jan 23, 2013
If you want the best, most effective, board of directors possible, start with one vital requirement: a commitment to your mission.
A director dedicated to your goals is most likely to devote the time necessary, be able to focus on the essential issues, and congenially meld his or her unique talents with those of the other directors.
Now, about those unique talents: No one individual brings all the talents and characteristics necessary to ensure a well-composed board. A board whose members’ strengths complement each other is one that goes beyond just well-functioning to one that promotes growth and progress. A good board not only provides vision and guidance, but also offers nitty-gritty skills, vital community contacts and fundraising support.
The current average size of a nonprofit board of directors is 16, though recently incorporated nonprofits tend to have small boards. Across the nation, states’ minimum requirements of boards is between one and three directors.
When determining the size of your board, consider the areas of expertise you need covered. Try for the sweet spot in which your board is large enough to ensure directors are not overworked, but not so large that some directors’ talents go underutilized. Go for a number that promotes productive group dynamics but does not inhibit meaningful discussion.
Directors should be sought who have expertise in:
- The field related to your mission
- Financial management
- Public relations
- Tax law and statutes affecting nonprofits
- Governance or the ability to create a business plan
Beginning or expanding a board should be a careful, well-planned, unrushed process. Weed out those applicants who think they will be doing the organization a big favor or who fail to value staff contributions.
Recruitment timelines should allow for identifying, recruiting and training new board members. Seek diversity. At least one director should reflect the population being served. Do not court civic or business leaders who will be too busy to do the work necessary. Directors should have time for both board and committee meetings. A superb candidate will have the potential to attract future board directors of a similar caliber.
Before potential directors officially sign on, they must be presented with a clear job description. Some board consultation experts advise organizations to establish formal requirements about attendance, personal financial contributions, participation in fundraising, and serving on working committees. While board members are often elected or appointed because they represent a certain community or point of view, they must understand that once on the board their fiduciary responsibility is to the board.
There are no hard and fast rules regarding how long a director can or should serve. While some nonprofits see board membership in Supreme Court terms, life-long tenure, others take very different tacks.
Some limit members to two consecutive terms, requiring a one-year break before they can be reappointed. Others stagger terms of service so that one-third of the board is elected every one to three years.
These latter practices bring in new perspectives while retaining historical memory. Stagnation is kept at bay. New board members force the group to consider new concepts and to adapt to emerging demands.
That said, what’s best for any one organization depends on a number of factors. In some rural or low income communities, it may be difficult to continually seek out committed directors with equivalent contacts and expertise in a vital area.
Nonprofits are always growing and evolving, so board recruitment should be considered a never-ending process. Smart nonprofits keep wish lists of those they covet when openings arise.
Some organizations use committees centered around specific projects as a way of bringing in promising young volunteers who can be groomed for board membership.
A big plus associated with promoting volunteers is knowing that these individuals know your organization well, are committed to your mission, and have already demonstrated a willingness to put in the time necessary.
As stated at the beginning, it all comes down to commitment to the mission. Board members should have a passion for your cause, not just an itch to be on your letterhead.
Working with Ian Shuman, and more recently with Elinor Litwack, has been wonderful. Ian brings a wealth of CPA management experience, which has proven invaluable in helping our firm address management issues.
Ana Ramos | Associate Director for Administration
Stanley Medical Research Institute