Nonprofits exist and operate by the leadership of their board of directors. Not only do they provide strategic and fiduciary oversight for the nonprofit, but they also assist in funding and some planning components. Some nonprofits are completely run and operated by their volunteer board in what is known as a “working board”.
For nonprofits with executive staff, the Nonprofit Executive Director reports to their board members, and effective executive directors know how to work with and leverage their board members for success.
The Nonprofit Board
According to the National Council of Nonprofits, the purpose of the board of directors for a nonprofit is to be “the fiduciaries who steer the organization towards a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical, and legal governance and financial management policies, as well as by making sure the nonprofit has adequate resources to advance its mission.”
The nonprofit board’s fiduciary responsibilities include approving and monitoring budgets or major spending. Most boards conduct regular board meetings to manage, amend, or create the nonprofit’s policies and major strategic decisions. This includes formal strategic planning and any ultimate decision making for the nonprofit.
Their ultimate responsibility outside of financial management and governance is however fundraising and keeping the nonprofit on track with the organization’s mission. They play an important role in fundraising efforts by supporting those efforts with peer fundraising, or even serving as potential donors and major gift prospects themselves.
The Board and the Staff
Nonprofit organizations are typically set up with the board of directors at the top of the hierarchy. Usually with a board chair and various committees. They hire the most executive-level position, usually titled executive director or chief executive officer or something similar. That most senior-level position reports directly to the board. The board of directors typically evaluates the executive director on a continual basis and both parties are best served when they are transparent and collaborative with one another. The executive director or chief executive officer also serves on the board, usually in a non-voting capacity.
The Executive Director is responsible for hiring and managing any other staff for the organization. Usually, there is administrative, programmatic, marketing, and fundraising staff. Of those staff members, fundraising and development staff might also have a close working relationship with the board since board members typically support fundraising efforts. Development teams work with board members in soliciting gifts from the board members themselves or soliciting from their connections and peers. Usually, board members will provide helpful insights nonprofits can use as prospect research or they will assist directly with solicitation efforts.
At the end of the day, everyone is there to serve the nonprofit’s mission and the nonprofit’s staff and the board work hard to keep the organization true to that mission.
Board Members as Nonprofit Leaders
Board members serve as nonprofit leaders, representing the many charitable organizations changing communities for the better. Their leadership while serving as a nonprofit board can either hamper a nonprofit’s growth or help navigate the nonprofit to a successful and sustainable future. That is why, in particular, the board’s financial management and fundraising responsibilities are so vital for a nonprofit’s successful future.
Usually professionally trained and paid staff or consultants will provide the fundraising strategy for the organization. The board’s role is to ensure the resources available for implementing the strategy and to make sure that strategy still serves to fulfill the nonprofit’s mission. Successful fundraising cannot happen without support from the board. As BoardSource notes on a board fundraising resource page, “The most successful fundraising organizations have built a powerful fundraising partnership between the board, the executive, and the fundraising staff.”
Board members are best leveraged in the fundraising process as advocates for the nonprofit during the implementation of fundraising strategies. Board members can use their position of leadership for the organization to welcome new donors, connect fundraisers to prospects for creating prospect pipelines, and bring possible funders to the development team or to events to meet with key members of the organization. Nonprofit leaders, including the board, are responsible for exposing as many people as possible to the mission they represent. At the 2017 BoardSource Leadership Forum, Chuck Loring advised that “The board must role model giving behavior for other prospects and donors to follow.”
Cultivating the Right Nonprofit Board
Because board members serve as leaders for the organization and are vital components for the nonprofit’s success, wise nonprofit executives are strategic with their board and with cultivating new board members. Though a nominating committee within the board usually is responsible for board recruitment, a nonprofit executive with a great working relationship with their board usually has a large say in board nominations.
The nonprofit sector is filled with potential leaders ready to pick up more volunteer responsibilities for the causes they care about. However, board members do not have to come from the nonprofit sector or have strictly charitable backgrounds. Picking the right board members is critical for nonprofit leadership.
A board member might be picked because they are a major gift prospect and board positions are part of that nonprofit’s prospect pipeline. They might be chosen for affluence or influence – meaning they have the dollars to give or the connections to people and organizations with dollars to give. Another popular and successful board recruitment strategy is to constantly fill gaps, either with the expertise necessary for that nonprofit’s success or with an authentic representation of the community the nonprofit serves.
Most importantly, a potential board member needs to be a good fit for the organization and needs to have a true passion for the nonprofit’s mission. A board position takes a lot of energy and time. The most successful board member will have the kind of passion it takes to have that energy and to make that time. With passion comes dedication and motivation to do the work necessary for the board role.
Motivating the Board For Success
Covid-19 demands extra work from all, including the nonprofit boards. These volunteers are navigating the pandemic for their nonprofits, work, and personal lives. This can be draining during a time when their focus, attention, and energy is needed more than ever.
So how can a nonprofit executive motivate its board during these times? Even prior to the pandemic, blogs such as Fired Up Fundraising were pointing out that board members are reluctant to help with fundraising, that they think it isn’t fun, and that they were bored in general. So if one accepts that their fundraising and nonprofit operations cannot be successful without an engaged board, then they must also accept a possible uphill battle to motivate their board.
Richard Male and Associates provided a pretty great list of factors that could contribute to a great board.
- Whether or not they feel the organization is using their skills and talents effectively. Make sure you get to know each board member in terms of how they want to use their time, talent, and expertise.
- If they feel the organization is making a difference in the community.
- Do they feel they are learning and growing with the organization? People join organizations to learn new skills and to develop other skills. Make sure you’re creating opportunities for this personal growth and education.
- Do they enjoy working with the other board members? Relationships between and among board members are key. Make sure you are developing a “community” with your board members.
The site then provides some decent ideas and suggestions for motivating a board and most of those suggestions revolve around building personal relationships and making the board member feel valued and appreciated. Build consensus with the full board on achievable goals, then assign realistic leadership positions to board members, using personal one on ones with board members for assigning the best leadership roles to the best board members. Then give clear directions, ongoing training, and any supporting material for the board members to easily achieve those goals. And finally, celebrate any wins and make sure that each board member understands how their specific role led to that success.
From Motivating to Leveraging
A motivated and well-supported board will complete the work necessary while also engaging board members for necessary buy-in on why fundraising and supporting the organization is critical to its goals and programmatic success. This will allow the nonprofit executive to move from motivating the board for that important buy in, to leveraging the board as true advocates and more strategic fundraisers for the organization.
One of the simplest ways nonprofit board members can support their organizations is by advocating on its behalf. Sharing on social media with tweets, Facebook and Instagram, and LinkedIn posts all help bring digital exposure to the organization’s good work to the board members’ peers and colleagues. Board members can attend and invite their colleagues to fundraising events, further exposing their networks to a mission they care about. They can also just constantly be on the lookout for opportunities or possible new connections that might benefit the nonprofit or benefit from the nonprofit.
The harder task for nonprofit leaders is setting up the board members for fundraising success. Motivating board members will ignite the energy necessary and help with any uneasiness with soliciting donations. Providing materials and coaching the board member on how to use their own story and connection to the nonprofit as part of the ask will also help make the fundraising process easier and more enjoyable for the board member. Once board members become comfortable with fundraising and find joy in connecting their peers to philanthropy, they will then be tenfold more likely to start soliciting and providing prospects on their own.
Each board member comes to the team with their own network of peers as potential donors, volunteers, or even future board members. Leveraging the nonprofit’s relationship with those board members establishes a pipeline to all those new networks.