Does your board understand its job?

When people join a nonprofit board, they often do it because they either care about the cause or because they’re looking for the experience – or both. But they don’t always know what the roles and responsibilities of the Board are, and they often aren’t given the proper orientation.

As a result, I’ve seen many boards operate inefficiently and ineffectively. Sometimes they micromanage programs. Sometimes they fail to hold leadership accountable. Sometimes they don’t always act as effective evangelists for the organization. And all too often they don’t have a cohesive understanding of the organization – or a common vision to guide it.

While the board is the ultimate leadership of any entity, it is the responsibility of the senior management (usually the Executive Director or President) to help orient the Board and define its role in guiding the organization.

So what are the roles of the board? What should it be doing to maximize its effectiveness for the organization – and what should it not be doing? Here’s a brief rundown:

  • Manage resources. This is an obvious one, but the legal obligation of any Board of Directors is to oversee and ultimately be responsible for the organization’s financial well-being. This doesn’t mean line-item approvals or even approving department budgets, but the board should review organization-wide budgets and keep tabs on its assets and liabilities. If the ship sinks, the board is the captain that goes down with it.
  • Manage leadership. Everyone’s got a boss, including the Executive Director or President of the organization. The board is the supervisor of the organization’s top brass, and as with any supervisor, it is the board’s job to support the Executive Director and review his or her performance. Just as other employees go through a performance review, so should the Executive Director, with clearly defined expectations and competencies. The Executive Director should also have professional development that strengthens his or her ability to lead the organization effectively towards its goals.
  • Provide strategic guidance and focus. As the highest leadership of the organization, the board should help define the organization’s mission and vision, and the strategies the organization will take to be successful in achieving them. The board should shape and oversee the organization’s programs in terms of their alignment with the mission and progress, but without micromanaging it: the board should not review program details – just shape the direction for programs and review higher-level measures of progress. The board is also responsible for ensuring the organization – its leadership and its programs – stays focused on the mission, and does not wander off chasing distractions (aka “mission-drift”).
  • Monitor and evaluate. As part of the strategic planning process, measurable goals and outcomes should be defined, as well as indicators of progress and measures of success. Without monitoring every detailed indicator for each program, the board should keep tabs on the organization’s progress towards achieving its mission, including strategic goals and program goals. Just as the board should periodically review the performance of the Executive Director, the board should also periodically review the performance of the organization towards its goals.
  • Be evangelists. Many boards have requirements for financial contributions to the organization, but beyond giving money there is the important job of promoting the organization. Board members should be talking to their networks and the public about the organization and garnering support for its work. Board members who join in support of the cause will be better at this than those just looking for experience on a board, but in either case the staff should train the board to speak effectively on behalf of the organization.
  • Be a moral compass. In addition to keeping the organization focused on its mission, it should also ensure its integrity by adhering to legal standards and setting the highest standards of ethics. This is partly done through its own behavior, partly through the policies it enacts and enforces, partly through its management of the Executive Director, and partly through its review of programs and resources. A public charity is ineffective if it is corrupt, immoral, or has a tarnished reputation. After all, if it can’t be trusted, why would anyone support or invest in its work?

A board can be a key asset in support of an organization’s success, but this can only happen if the board assumes its proper roles and responsibilities. And just as any good employee knows how to manage up to his or her supervisor, so should an organization know how to manage up and support its board.

Do you think your board has the right role for your organization? Has it been difficult to manage the board or to maximize their effectiveness? What problems are you facing with your board and what has been helpful for getting the most of out your board?


3 thoughts on “Does your board understand its job?

  1. Wow–this sounds exactly like our board. I gave them all their job descriptions and went through a similar list of responsibilities with them but we seem to be stuck. I think some of it is because we don’t have anyone with board experience–just a desire to help. I think some of them could be better at volunteering for special events and not serving on the board but it’s hard to get people off of it once they’re on.

    Thanks for this article. It’s time for more introspection and research.

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