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Building Resilient Nonprofit Boards

In late July, Good Insight’s CEO, Carlyn Madden, was a featured speaker at the National Small Nonprofit Summit, a convening of mission-minded leaders from across the country. Our session, Building Resilient Boards, discussed how to build nonprofit board capacity to sustain and recover from the multitude of health, economic, and racial justice crises affecting the nonprofit sector. A recording of the presentation can be found here.  

Your Board is a Group of Volunteers 

In our work with nonprofit boards, we found that our clients forget that a board is a group of volunteers. We frequently see boards not given the resources, training, and information that we would expect in any other volunteer role. Without onboarding processes, clear directives, and consistent communication from the staff, how can we realistically expect these volunteers to be engaged in their fiduciary duties and fundraising from their networks?

Moreover, the board is often a group of strangers that see each other two to ten times a year. For obvious reasons, meetings are business-focused, members run late, and there are few social occasions to get to know one another better. We have depersonalized board service to the extent that it is difficult for members to build the type of strong, enduring relationship necessary to navigate challenging conversations that we see so frequently today.

Grounding on those two ideas, the first half of the presentation focused on three factors of resilience for today’s board of directors:

Purpose: the board’s absolute clarity of why the organization exists, who it serves, and its short- and long-term strategies; 

People: the board’s bench strength with the right people in the right seats to sustain its leadership capacity; and=

Preparedness: the board’s often overlooked oversight to prepare for an abrupt leadership transition.

FAQs From the Audience: How to Build Resilient Boards

The second half was dedicated to troubleshooting audience questions. Here are a few that nonprofit leaders might find helpful when navigating today’s challenges.

Our board chair is looking to move on, but there isn’t a successor in place. 

It’s infrequent, but not impossible, for a nonprofit to recruit a new member to serve immediately as board chair. If you would like to take that route, here are a few things to consider:

Complete buy-in. 

Does every board member also agree that there isn’t a successor to the current board chair? Often there is someone thinking they’ll step in, but who others don’t believe would be the right choice. This lack of consensus can sabotage the transition. The board chair and executive need to have a frank conversation about succession, potential successors, and a clear timeline to get someone in place and appropriately oriented. If it’s a year or more away, recruit a new Vice Chair and name them Chair-Elect. If it’s sooner than that, the more urgent it is to get buy-in from the board right now. The board chair begins seeding the idea with the executive committee, other key members of the board, and identifies anyone that might not agree. Once there’s unanimous consent that this is the direction you’ll go, get ready to recruit by creating a candidate profile. 

Clarity about your needs. 

What’s on the horizon? A capital campaign? Rejuvenating board networks? An executive transition? The more explicit you are about the focus of the role, the more likely it is that you can recruit someone for their specific skills and networks. When you’re clear, it’s easier it is to get good referrals: “We’re looking for a new board chair to replace Debbie,” or “We’re looking for a new board chair with nonprofit board experience, relationships in real estate development to help secure our next office space, and has the capacity to meet our $5,000 Give/Get policy.”

We just brought on three new board members. How do you suggest pairing up new members and existing members? 

In the presentation, Carlyn suggested “Board Buddies” to orient new members to the board’s meeting culture and materials, as well as begin the process of forming collegial relationships. A successful Board Buddies system doesn’t mean that every current board member must participate. Instead, tap a few of your friendliest, most engaged members to pilot the Board Buddies program and invite others to volunteer. It’s okay if multiple new members are assigned to one current member, as long as you get their permission. Once the new member is approved, the Board Buddy should reach out to set up time to chat, get to know them, and discuss meeting structures, member roles, and other details specific to your organization. 

Once the board meeting materials have been sent out, have the Board Buddy reach out to field any questions the new member might have. There might be context needed for the new performance management system, or history with the new vendor contract. In a non-COVID-19 world, some buddies might enter the meeting together, so the buddy can introduce the new member to their fellow board members (we’ve all been that person in a meeting where the only person we knew wasn’t there yet!). At the meeting, have the Board Buddy introduce the new member and them to share a few words about themselves and their connection to this work. 

Afterwards, the Board Buddy can circle back with the new member to field additional questions and gain feedback. Have the Board Buddy share that information with the Executive Director and Board Chair. The buddy system should be time-limited. It might result in an enduring friendship, but that’s not really the goal. Rather, it’s important to lay the groundwork of engagement, stewardship, and care for your board members early, and to involve your board members in that process.

Watch the Full Recording to Fully Prepare Your Board

For more audience questions and practical advice on how to fully equip your board, watch the full recording below.

If you are interested in participating in future industry talks or valuable insights, download our monthly newsletter, Good News. If you have a board conundrum that you’d like to discuss, email to set up a free 30-minute consultation with one of our governance experts.

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