50 Tips for Organizing Nonprofit Boards

nonprofit board organizing tipsFinding, empowering and retaining board members requires intentionality and healthy working relationships. Use these 50 tips for nonprofit board success.

Recruit the Right Board Members

  1. Passionate People - Look for people who are already excited about your cause and making the time to serve. Your donor and volunteer base are great places to start as they already engage with your nonprofit.
  2. Referrals - Ask your current board and donor base for suggestions of people they know who would make excellent board members.
  3. Diversify Skills - Every organization needs a variety of team members to succeed. Include board members with expertise in specific areas like finance, law, education, social work and real estate. It also helps if your board has skills outside of what the president or executive director has.
  4. Diversify Demographics - Consider recruiting board members of differing age, gender and race for a variety of perspectives.
  5. Long-Term Thinkers - You need people to help you with finance and legal issues, but you also need big-picture thinkers, planners and strategists on the board.
  6. Matrix - Making a matrix can help you see what skills your board has and what talent is missing. This makes for well-rounded and diverse thought in leadership. 
  7. Communicate Through Multiple Channels - Choose an integrated marketing approach to reach people through a variety of channels. Use email, newsletters, volunteer recruitment sites, social media, traditional press and local media outlets to get the word out about your nonprofit. Mention you are recruiting board members and volunteers.
  8. Define Your Expectations - Clearly communicate your nonprofit’s expectations to potential board members, so everyone is on the same page, especially regarding the amount of time expected from them, the number of meetings, giving, training and time commitment (years served).
  9. Hear Their Expectations – Have potential board members share what they hope to get out of being on the board, not just what they plan to contribute. Their responses will help you understand their expectations about what your board actually is like. There will be cases where it just may not be a good fit, and it is good to have that honest conversation earlier instead of later.  
  10. Ongoing Recruitment - If possible, recruitment should be an ongoing process in the sense that you can always be aware of potential board members, asking for referrals and networking within the community.

Write the Bylaws

  1. Virtual Meetings - Allow directors to participate in board meetings by telephone, video conference, or other electronic means permitting all persons to connect with one another easily.
  2. Time Requirements - Require a reasonable amount of notice for calling board meetings, while also allowing flexibility as urgent needs arise.
  3. Specify Who Can Call a Meeting - Give the right to the board chair and the majority of the board by having them deliver timely written notice.
  4. Timely Notice - Specify timely notice especially with electronic delivery as an option. It should be actually or constructively received by the recipient – so email or text is okay, but not social media. Delivery should be at least one day before the meeting.
  5. Right to Waive - Make certain bylaws include the ability of directors to waive notice requirement(s). This allows for emergency situations.
  6. Quorum - A quorum is the minimum number of members needed to run a meeting. For the bylaws, decide how many directors you require to hold a meeting, and how many you require to act on an issue.
  7. Majority Rules - It is most common to need a majority of directors present at the meeting to hold a meeting and to transact on a matter at the meeting. Additionally, it is most common to require a majority of directors who are actually present at the meeting to vote or act, versus requiring a majority of directors on the board (present or not) to act on a matter.
  8. Higher Vote Standard - Consider whether any matters would require a higher vote standard such as a supermajority of those present or a majority of the board of directors.
  9. Accountability - Make sure that the bylaws are clear about the board’s roles and commitments. Offer any necessary training to help board members succeed.
  10. Check State Laws - Each state has different requirements for nonprofits. Check the laws in your state to see what you need to consider and incorporate into your bylaws as you write them.

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Run Efficient Board Meetings

  1. Mission Minded - Run the meeting with your mission and vision in mind. Consider having someone from the “field” briefly share at the meeting to keep everyone engaged.
  2. The Agenda is Your Friend - Every gathering should have an agenda. Send the plan well in advance, and include times allocated for each area to keep the meeting moving. Also, let participants know the significance of each agenda item relative to other issues.
  3. Prep Work - Communicate early about what each member needs to prepare before the meeting. At least one week prior is typical, but preferably communicate at least a month out.
  4. Produce Background Materials - Finalize all financial reports and resolutions to vote on, and send them to directors ahead of the meeting. At least one week ahead is preferable.
  5. Governance Versus Updates - Make meetings about governing and decisions versus updates. Board members aren’t giving their time to listen to endless reports; they are serving to help you govern and strategically plan. Send as many updates ahead of time, so board members have time to review them. This frees up valuable meeting time for strategy and governance.
  6. Time Constraints - Send out advance notice to give people an opportunity to read and consider the matters to present. This will help the quality of the discussion at the meeting and reduce the amount of time spent explaining background information.
  7. Committees - If there are board committees, consider holding a pre-meeting with the board chair and committee chairs to talk through the meeting. 
  8. Pre-conference - If organization heads are presenting at the meeting, the applicable organization head and the board or committee chair (as appropriate) should have a pre-conference to review and discuss the materials and recommendations. 
  9. Respect Time - Start and end on time to be respectful of the board’s time and the commitments each member has made to your nonprofit and others.
  10. Take Minutes - Take minutes with notes, decisions made, who was there and any action items. Send out the next day if possible while the meeting is fresh on everyone’s mind and action items can be immediately addressed. Some people like to record the session, so important details are not overlooked.
  11. Recruit a Good Board Chair - A good board chair will be able to steer the discussion to stay on track, draw people out who may not immediately speak up, and prevent one or two members from dominating the debate. This will help your meetings run purposefully and efficiently.

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Keep Board Members Engaged

  1. Training - Conduct training for new board members to go over the mission, vision, goals and strategic plans of your nonprofit. Orient board members well from the beginning and give them whatever tools they need to succeed, so they add value to the organization.
  2. Vision Trips - Have board members travel to meet organizational leaders and learn about strategic initiatives. The mission comes to life when someone sees the work you are doing firsthand.
  3. Employee Engagement - Talk to employees. Let them engage with what is happening on the ground and update them after board meetings. Do the same with members of the board.
  4. Serve - Send them out to serve the mission of your nonprofit. For example, if it is a school, have them be part of a school class, event or fundraiser, so they see the kids in action and experience the culture.
  5. Updates - When things happen between board meetings, send a summary note to the other board members to keep them informed.
  6. Leadership Development - Provide leadership development opportunities if possible. Everyone can benefit from continued education and development opportunities. Appoint a president and president-elect (or chair and chair-elect) so one person is being trained and in place to become the next president when the current president rolls off. This helps provide steady leadership.
  7. Build Relationships - Provide time and space to spend time together outside of meetings, such as lunches or board retreats. Depending on the size of your organization, try to provide something annually for board members to maintain and build relationships.
  8. Appreciation - Remember that board members are volunteering their time. Remember to thank them for their time and work to make sure they know you appreciate them.
  9. Invite Governance - Find creative ways to keep the board engaged with the mission of the nonprofit. Let them actually govern and give feedback as opposed to just hearing numbers and reports. Consultant Lisa Hoffman says that instead of just reading a finance report, ask: “Does the proposed budget reflect our mission priorities?” This is a strategic way to reframe questions and information and allow the board to govern.
  10. Balance the Pragmatic and the Strategic - There are practical issues and logistics to discuss at board meetings, but make sure to balance those with the strategic planning and visionary topics to keep board members engaged.

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Address Board Challenges

  1. Giving - If someone is serving on your board, they should believe in your mission enough to give to it financially as well as with their time. Some nonprofits set a minimum on how much board members should give, but doing this could eliminate some highly qualified people with great insight. Board members don’t have to be high-end givers, but they should all give something. 
  2. Fundraising - Decide if your board is responsible for fundraising or not. If they are, make it clear what their responsibilities are, and give them the tools they need to be successful.
  3. Residency - Gathering board members from a variety of cities and states brings a wide perspective, but requires advanced planning to accommodate for travel arrangements. Will your board members need to be local and living in the same region, or is a national reach the best option for your organization?
  4. Scheduling - Coordinating multiple people’s busy schedules is a challenge. Try to have pre-scheduled meetings, whether quarterly or bi-monthly on the same day so people can plan ahead.
  5. Consensus - Most boards suffer from consensus decision-making. It’s not wrong to agree, but be sure you encourage different perspectives to present. It’s okay if a vote is not unanimously approved because it spurs on the discussion. 
  6. Code of Conduct - Establish a “code of conduct” upfront. As challenges develop, deal with them outside of official board meetings.
  7. MIA - If a board member goes silent, graciously check in with them to see what is going on. Often the problem is not your nonprofit, but a more significant issue in their personal or professional life. Find out what their situation is and how you can help. Sometimes a personal call is just what they need, and other times it is a leave of absence. Call and openly communicate before jumping to conclusions.
  8. Replacing a Board Member Mid-Year - Create a clear process for filling vacant board positions in the event that a member can no longer serve. Teach board members how to leave well if necessary and be sure to celebrate their contributions as a group before they leave.
  9. Purposeful Work - Give board members meaningful work, where members are able to use their talents and skills to advance the organization. Board members are graciously giving of their time; don’t stick them with routine or mundane tasks. Consider asking seasoned board members to serve with new board members, especially anyone who hasn’t served on a board before. It can take up to a year to fully understand the mission and strategy of an organization, so be sure to give new members time to get up to speed on the organization.
It is powerful when leaders gather and commit to accomplishing a shared mission. With these tips in your toolbox, you can reduce the stress of organizing your nonprofit’s board and improve performance for the overall organization.  

Andrea Johnson is a native Texan now living in Charlotte, N.C., with her husband and two daughters.