Giving Thoughts


Strengthening Nonprofit Boards by Engaging All Members

By Alice Korngold

“I want to serve on a board where I can add value.” That is the foremost aspiration of the hundreds of business people that I’ve trained and placed on nonprofit boards. Board candidates seek a mission that is personally compelling. Yet most people have numerous interests and are open to a journey to explore a variety of organizations. Success for the candidate is finding a board where they are passionate about the mission and come to an understanding with the organization’s leadership about how they can be useful.

The challenge for nonprofit CEOs and board chairs is determining how to engage board members productively and meaningfully. Nonprofits face serious strategic and financial challenges. Diverse board members who bring business acumen, relevant expertise, and a variety of perspectives and experiences are vital in helping the organization to maximize its potential. Yet too often board members are down in the weeds, or not engaged at all, because there is little clarity about what they should do.

The struggle to involve board members effectively is not exclusive to nonprofits. Public and private companies face similar challenges. A new study conducted by the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University Graduate School of Business and The Miles Group reveals that “directors have considerable opportunity to improve the performance of their boards by improving group dynamics and encouraging the active engagement of all members.” In fact, out of the 187 directors who were interviewed for the study, only “half (56 percent) strongly believe that their boards leverage the skills of all board members.”

In order to determine how nonprofit board members can contribute effectively, there must be a process and understanding about the future of the organization. The nonprofit board should work with the CEO to imagine the organization’s greater potential in achieving its mission over the next several years—what can best be described as a vision. Importantly, this vision is only meaningful if the board and CEO also create the revenue model to achieve success. With the vision and revenue model in clear focus, the board and CEO can establish the

  • Role of the board in maximizing success for this nonprofit at this time
  • Expectations of board members
  • Ideal board composition
  • Plan to build the ideal board (including celebrating and thanking board members who will move off, and recruiting new board members who are needed)
  • Committee structure, board practices, board agendas, etc.
  • Role of board leaders, and leadership succession plans
  • System of accountability and ongoing board assessment

The board’s plan for itself is essential in order to ensure that the nonprofit truly achieves its potential in the years ahead. Additionally, the role of the CEO should be aligned with the role of the board in accomplishing success. Some staff support will be required for the board to fulfill its responsibilities, so that should be planned as well.

The role of the board for each organization must be determined in the context of what the nonprofit seeks to achieve and the funds and sources that are required. The process provides clarity about who is needed, and how the board and each member will be useful in achieving what’s possible. By following this approach, nonprofit boards, like the public and private company boards described in the Stanford/TMG Study, can engage in Leveraging Good Will of its board members.

About the author:

Alice Korngold

Alice Korngold
A Better World, Inc.: How Companies Profit by Solving Global Problems…Where Governments Cannot

Alice Korngold is co-editor of Giving Thoughts and the author of A Better World, Inc.: How Companies Profit by Solving Global Problems…Where Governments Cannot (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and Leveraging Good Will: Strengthening Nonprofits by Engaging Businesses (Jossey Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 2005). For over 20 years, she has been training and placing business executives on NGO/nonprofit boards and consulting to corporations, foundations, and NGOs/nonprofits on board governance, CSR, and sustainability.

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