nonprofit board

The Friday Five: Assessing the Board of Directors

I have a friend who is considering a job opportunity as an Executive Director for a nonprofit organization, but has some concerns about its board. He asked me, What are the key questions to ask a board before accepting the Executive Director position?

There are many questions to ask, but here are five areas to consider:

1. Mission Clarity

Does the board have a clear understanding of the ultimate mission of the organization it is serving, or are there significant differences in each member's articulation of the mission? Is there agreement among the board as to what kind of chief executive they are seeking to hire, according to their understanding of what the mission will require? If the board were to be looking at a mountain range, would they all point to the same mountain that they are trying to climb?

2. Role Clarity

Does the board have a clear understanding and practice of how a healthy board operates? Do they have a track record of governance fueled by integrity, humility and appropriate boundaries of staff/board roles? Do you get a sense of whether they might micro-manage your leadership or be so hands-off that they leave you on your own?

3. Vision for Growth

Does the board have a vision for the organization to grow - both in health and in impact? Many boards prefer the comfort of small operations, and therefore, greater control. Are they recruiting you because they want to keep the status quo or because they see the need to grow beyond its current capacity and operation?

4. Serious About Success

Is the board going to give you the support that you need in order to succeed as its new chief executive? Will they hold you accountable to performance of mission-related objectives? Will they entrust you with personnel and programmatic authority to meet those goals? Do they have a competent board chair who is available and committed to ensuring your success?

5. A Commitment to Learning

No board is perfect, and most boards are far from flourishing. You don't need a five-star board to accept the job. But what you do want to be a part of a learning organization. Boards everywhere are a work in progress. The most rewarding board to work for is the one that is committed to learning and adapting along the way.

The Most Crucial Part of a Nonprofit Organization

It is the hardest work to prioritize, and often the most difficult to execute. There is little external pressure from donors about it, and it will not be fully discovered through the ratings of watchdog organizations. But if you want to know the quality of a nonprofit organization and its service to mission, look at its Board of Directors. I am convinced that most of the controversial stories surrounding nonprofit organizations today (think Kony 2012Susan G. KomenThree Cups of Tea) are tied to an ineffective Board of Directors and to the lack of pressure from donors to ensure that the nonprofit board is doing its job. In my 8 years with Blood:Water Mission, I can count on my hands the number of times a potential donor has asked about our board composition, how the board is run, the time and financial commitments of the members or the values by which the board operates. If I were a philanthropist, those would be my first questions because they reveal so much about a mission.

I am concerned that CEOs of nonprofits are not investing enough time in ensuring that they have healthy, governing nonprofit boards. This is my public plea to request that you do your research on the organizations you desire to fund and find out more about its Board of Directors.

There are many questions you could ask, but here are a few to consider:

1. How many members are on the board? If the board is too small, there is not enough accountability within the group to protect itself from insular groupthink. If the board is too big, there is less ability for each board member to be engaged at the level required for them to be effective in governance.

2. Are there board members who represent the core competencies of the mission? While it is important that the board be sourced with experts in law, finance and business,  it is equally important to have experts in your core mission. This should ensure that the organization is performing at a level that meets or exceeds the standards for that nonprofit's specific sector and that it is truly meeting the needs of your beneficiaries.

3. What is the relationship between the CEO and the Board? You can learn a lot about an organization based on this relationship. Is there divisiveness or consensus on vision and values for the organization? Is the CEO in the driver's seat with a board full of nodding heads? Is the board losing sight of governance and instead micromanaging the CEO? A nonprofit board should set standards of excellence for the CEO's performance on delivering mission impact and then provide the support necessary for her to achieve it.

Gary Haugen has been personally mentoring me since 2005. In our first meeting, he gave me a book titled The Nonprofit Board Answer Book that has served as an incredible guide for me through the years. I recommend it for anyone involved in nonprofit work or giving. The leadership of any nonprofit has a huge responsibility in prioritizing the healthy development of its board. We are by no means perfect and are still working diligently to build an effective board, but I am proud of the work we have done thus far. And even though it is the grueling work that is less visible to the public, it is truly the most important.