Every organization needs an engaged board of directors to guide it to success. In order to get to that magical place, where the board is committed, passionate and all working in the same direction, it is necessary to examine the basic role of the board of directors. It is up to every board to define its role, based on where the organization is at, in its life cycle. Broadly speaking, the role of the board will fall into one of three areas, based on where it’s at in into life cycle: management, guidance or policy making.
In the very beginning, at an organization’s inception, board members sometimes act as management or staff, donating their time, talent and treasure to get the organization going. Early board members act as book keepers, deliver programs, handle marketing etc. However, soon and inevitably, this voluntary labor must end. The board must take up its position of guidance and turn the reigns over to staff. In order to do so, a fundraising system must be built. If this is not done and board members continue acting as unpaid staff, eventually they either burn out or quit. And the once grand mission languishes or shuts down.
Therefore, it is essential to begin building a fundraising system as early as possible. So that staff can be hired and the board can become the board. The board has three choices: Recruit a board member who is experienced in fundraising, hire an executive director with fundraising experience or hire a fundraising consultant. Whatever the choice is, the sooner fundraising begins, the better. Ultimately, board members want to be board members. Most did not sign on to be unpaid staff.
Once “ownership” has been passed to an executive director and staff, the board can take on the responsibilities necessary to guide an organization to success. Broadly stated, these are some common functions of a board of directors:
- Planning for the future
- Interpreting the organization’s mission
- Advocating on behalf of the organization
- Setting broad policies
- Deliberating options for action
- Contracting for the executive
- Soliciting prospective contributors
- Dealing proactively with emerging issues
Policy Making Role
The ultimate goal is for the board to be focused primarily on setting policy. According to Diane Duca in Nonprofit Boards, “The more time a board spends on resolving specific problems, the less time it has to devote to the larger issues… Budget, long-range plans, and program evaluations brought to the board for deliberation are materials. A board that addresses the policies underlying these materials, rather than the materials content, deals directly with organizational fundamentals that are more enduring by nature. According to this perspective, policy-making should be guided by questions about governance and not administrative details.”
It is very challenging to not get caught up in organizational details. Board members must fight to keep their eyes on the big picture constantly. Duca further points out “Closely examining a budget line by line is neither visionary nor inspirational… Organizing the details of a special event may be fun, but it does not speak to an organization’s future.” (Duca, Nonprofit Boards, 1996)
Nonprofit boards are essential to the growth and sustainability of the organizations they serve. Management and staff may be experts at their respective disciplines, but every organization needs directors who are constantly looking at the horizon and doing what staff cannot: acting as ambassadors to the public, advocating on behalf of the organization to legislators and opening doors to the wealthy and influential. Having an engaged and successful board is not impossible. In future posts we will examine the concrete steps necessary to create a powerful board of directors.
NonProfit Solutions Consulting 2013
It’s that time of year again. Season is winding down and we’re all looking forward to a break. Season can be so intense, that when it comes to an end many southwest Florida nonprofit managers want to find the nearest dark corner and curl up for a long nap. Okay, that’s perfectly normal and actually necessary. It’s important to rest and recharge to avoid burnout. But, my job is to remind you of what comes next!
For many nonprofits in southwest Florida, spring and summer are planning time. It’s too busy during season with events, donors down from up north and board meetings. One can barely catch one’s breath! Now is the time to start thinking about operational planning, budgeting and strategic planning. Who will be involved in the processes? What is the time frame for each process? If you carve out time now in your team’s calendar over the next few months, planning for next season will definitely get done.
Nowadays, strategic planning needs to be done every 2-3 years. (The days of the five-year plan are over. The world changes so fast now, that five year plans become obsolete or irrelevant after a few years.) If your strategic plan is out of date and most of your board members live here in southwest Florida, you may want to work on creating a new strategic plan over the summer.
Operational plans are annual creations, which bring the high-level strategic plan down to earth. They contain concrete information like specific objectives, projects, who is responsible for what and timeframes. But, I’m often asked “Which comes first – planning or budgeting?” My contention is that you must thoroughly envision and discuss what needs to be done (planning) and then figure out how much it will cost (budgeting) and then figure out how you will raise the funds. This scenario works for several of our clients and it worked from me when I was a nonprofit manager.
If budget constraints drive the planning process, you will never dream big enough to accomplish your mission. However, it is always a good idea to have a strong financial manager or consultant who can look at your planning once it is articulated and help you figure out what is reasonable to accomplish this year. Outside, objective facilitation of the process can also be helpful. But, in the end, all three entities must agree on the final operational plan: the program manager, the finance manager and the fundraiser. And now is the time to set up your planning and budgeting over the spring and summer. I know you’re tired, but you can do it! Set up your schedule and then go take that well-deserved nap. And if you need any help with all of this, we’re here for you.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about organizational life cycles. It’s something we learned about in graduate school. But, I am just beginning to incorporate it into my work. By understanding where a nonprofit is at in its life cycle, one can better understand the challenges they are facing. (more…)