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Six Strategies to Increase the Effectiveness of Your Nonprofit Board

Six Strategies to Increase Board Effectiveness | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

Your nonprofit board will be more successful if your members adopt the skills and habits known to make a nonprofit board more effective.

According to a study measuring nonprofit board effectiveness (PDF, 250 KB) funded by the Lilly Foundation and the United States Department of Education, the best boards demonstrate proficiency with competencies in six areas: contextual, educational, interpersonal, analytical, political, and strategic.

You can help your nonprofit board achieve excellence in these competencies by encouraging board members to use the strategies describe below.

Contextual Competency: Understanding the Context of Your Organization

Members of your nonprofit board must understand the context of your organization and adapt to your organization's culture, regardless of their individual backgrounds. The Lilly Foundation study defined the context of an organization using these five factors: culture, size, competition, role within the community and core values.

Help new board members understand your organizational culture by providing an orientation on standing programs, traditions, and work that demonstrate the organization's core values. Here are ways to help orient new members:

  • Have guest speakers, such as emeriti members, staff, and living legends, provide first-person perspectives of your organization's past.
  • Have existing board members talk about success stories that demonstrate how your board has worked together on problems.
  • Your board can also incorporate a re-reading of your organization's mission into meetings as a regular reminder to all members.

Educational Competency: Encouraging Continuing Education

Your board should take its continuing education seriously and constantly reinforce understanding the institution, the field, and the board's roles and responsibilities to your members. Here are some strategies to build your board's educational competency:

  • Create ongoing opportunities for board development within the context of regular meetings.
  • Take time to meet with board member counterparts at other organizations.
  • Rotate committee assignments regularly to prevent stale thinking.
  • Regularly solicit feedback and information about board performance.
  • Reflect on the board's strengths and weaknesses.
  • Be open to changing the way the board does business if things aren't working out as planned.
  • Turn missteps into teaching moments.

Educational Opportunities at Meetings

Your board may wish to set aside time during regular board meetings to focus on a particular subject. Here are two educational opportunities for your meetings:

  • Hold a mini-seminar with a guest speaker who can offer an interesting perspective on a project or issue.
  • Have board or staff members report on interesting ideas they gathered from attending a conference or another organization's meeting.

Pop quizzes at meetings can also support ongoing education.

Feedback and Evaluation

The best education requires regular feedback and evaluation, but this need not be painful. Consider these ideas for your board:

  • At the end of each board meeting, solicit comments and suggestions on index cards.
  • Have a third party solicit feedback from senior staff on your board's effectiveness.
  • Log critical incidents in a file for consideration during board retreats.
  • Conduct annual surveys of board performance—both individual and collective.
  • Invite outsiders to attend your meetings from time-to-time and solicit their feedback.
  • Consider having a governance committee rather than a nominating committee.

Interpersonal Competency: Nurturing a Collegial Atmosphere

The best boards nurture a sense of collegiality within their ranks. Each board member should feel included in your board's decision-making process. Here are some strategies to cultivate this sense of inclusiveness:

  • Communicate regularly on wide-reaching topics.
  • Build a little time into your meeting agendas for informal interaction.
  • Coordinate informal events that allow board members to connect on a personal level.
  • Maintain board biographical files.
  • Pair current board members with new board members to share the board's unwritten, unspoken rules (norms).
  • Identify the strongest leaders within the group and provide opportunities for these individuals to develop their leadership skills.
  • Recognize good work from individuals and the group as a whole.

Analytical Competency: Cultivating Your Analytical Skills

Your board can cultivate its analytical skills using verbal and written brainstorming. Here are ways to build your board's analytical competency:

  • Explore the downsides of options and think carefully about worst-case scenarios.
  • Don't shy away from contradictory information when evaluating problems.
  • Develop contingency plans.
  • Reinforce and reward constructive criticism.

Great boards also welcome multiple perspectives on subtle and complicated issues. They evaluate issues through diverse perspectives, look outside of the board for information and insight, and understand that solutions can't always be perfect, and tolerate ambiguity.

Political Competency: Strengthening Your Political Skills

Boards can strengthen their political skills in many ways. Here are a few ideas for your board:

  • Distribute information to members and the general public about your organization's activities through board reports, annual reports, profiles of board members and so forth.
  • Reach out to the general membership when seeking committee participation.
  • Invite leaders from other groups to speak periodically at your board meetings.
  • Visit staff in their natural habitats.

The best boards recognize the importance of alliances with other groups. Your executive director plays a critical part in facilitating your board's political outreach. Here are a few tips for developing alliances:

  • Cultivate relationships with key constituencies and forge partnerships.
  • Consult frequently with key constituencies and partners to minimize conflicts and win/lose situations.
  • Respect other organizations' missions and other stakeholders' roles and responsibilities.

Strategic Competency: Sharpening Your Strategic Vision

Your board will help shape your organization's vision and develop strategies to implement it. To do this, your board must use methods that will help to sharpen its understanding of priorities. The following methods may help your board to focus on priorities:

  • Request annual memorandums of strategy from the executive director.
  • Establish a continuous agenda, possibly linked to your strategic plan, including a work plan for your staff and board.
  • Create meeting agendas that reflect the organization's overarching strategic priorities.
  • Provide background information about priority items to all board members in advance so meetings are focused on discussion and problem solving, not merely reporting and reciting facts.
  • Track the amount of time spent on given issues to ensure that the top priorities receive proportional attention.

Learn More

Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.

You can learn more about nonprofit operations from the Nonprofit Management Education Center offered by the Center for Community and Economic Development, which is part of the University of Wisconsin Division of Cooperative Extension. This resource includes a library of articles and an Organizational Assessment Tool.