5 Steps to Building a Strong Board of Directors

- Sarah Najarian and Caroline Page,
Governance & Board Placement team, Robin Hood


Work + Wisdom + Wealth = Board Service

In addition to funding some of the most effective poverty-fighting organizations in New York City, Robin Hood helps strengthen its grantee partners through management assistance — management expertise plus resources to help these organizations make an even greater impact. Here at Robin Hood, our board placement program is a key piece of this work. Beyond the obvious need for financial capital, intellectual capital is also necessary to help nonprofits navigate the complexities of running organizations and consistently delivering high quality programs. Boards of directors play a key role in providing strategic oversight and guidance, ensuring that organizations are well-run and well-positioned to provide the highest quality services to their clients.

Through the board placement program, we connect talented individuals who are interested in dedicating their time and skills to the boards of organizations funded by Robin Hood. Board placement is one of the most important things we do to tap the talents and resources of New Yorkers to solve our city’s greatest challenges. Without the right people around the table, the governance and fiduciary responsibilities of the board will not be fully addressed. We work closely with our grantee partners to assess and prioritize their strategic board needs and develop initiatives to strengthen the performance of their boards through trainings and access to consulting support.

At Robin Hood, we thrive under the thoughtful and strategic leadership of our own board of directors. Here are five ways we recommend to build and maintain a strong and high-functioning nonprofit board of directors.

Board members will only rise to the level of performance articulated to them and expected of them

1. Clear Expectations

Setting clear expectations for board members — particularly around time and financial commitments — seems so straightforward, but often this does not happen. Developing a board prospectus that clearly outlines the roles and responsibilities, as well as the time commitment, personal contribution and fundraising requirements of board members, is beneficial in two ways. First, creating the prospectus is a good exercise that can help current board members get aligned. And, having the document to share with prospective board members will allow them to understand what is expected and may help to facilitate necessary — and sometimes awkward — conversations about time and financial commitments. Board members will only rise to the level of performance articulated to them and expected of them, so as a board, it is important to clarify expectations with potential new members from the beginning.

2. Composition

We are often asked if there is an ideal number of board members. There is no “right” number, as it will depend on the stage and needs of a particular organization. Some states do have rules about minimum board size, so it is important to be informed about such requirements.

But oftentimes the minimum and maximum numbers of members are defined in the bylaws of the board.

Having a diverse mix of skill sets, areas of expertise, backgrounds and demographics are essential to ensuring a well-rounded board. Evaluating the current board, identifying gaps, developing a recruitment strategy, having a process for vetting potential candidates, and creating an orientation plan for new members are important components of creating a board that provides a variety of perspectives, sufficient resources and an ever expanding network of supporters and champions.

3. Committees

Once a board reaches a certain number of members (typically 12 -15) it becomes necessary to parcel out the work to committees. Otherwise, it may become cumbersome to make every decision with the group in its entirety, and members may feel a lack of ownership and accountability for the work. There are typically four standing committees: executive, governance, finance, and fundraising. Ad hoc committees may be created to work on a specific assignment — such as a capital campaign or major event — for a limited amount of time. Committees typically meet in between board meetings, either via conference call or in person, and report out on their pieces of the work to the full board for questions and input.

4. Educate

Once a new member joins the board, a robust orientation process will provide her or him with the resources needed to quickly become informed, active and engaged. Ideally, the orientation will include an in-person overview of the organization and its programs and finances, as well as a detailed review of the board handbook including the roles and responsibilities of the board, committee structure and bylaws.

But, education is not just for new board members. While the basic governance responsibilities are crucial, providing continuing education for the board and opportunities for them to stay up-to-date about the programs and services the organization provides will help to keep board members engaged and connected to the work in a meaningful way. For example, at Robin Hood we often host our meetings at grantee partner sites and invite issue area experts to attend meetings as guest speakers. Doing this provides members with compelling stories and authentic anecdotes to share about the organization when they are fundraising and networking.

5. Evaluate

Periodic assessment — of individual board members and of the board as a whole — is an important part of board development and provides the opportunity to formally identify areas for growth and improvement.

Ideally, individual board members will be assessed annually. For many groups, this happens at term renewal, which is typically every two to three years. Of course, meaningful assessments do involve some tracking of and reporting on meeting attendance, personal contributions and fundraising, and participation in committee work. But, having that information organized and available as a snapshot can make it easier to recognize and thank a board member for their numerous contributions. Or, when need be, it can help to facilitate a more difficult conversation when it becomes clear that a board member is less engaged and perhaps the time has come for that person to step down and make that seat available for a new member who will bring fresh ideas and energy.

Every three to five years is an appropriate interval for evaluating the performance of the board as a whole.

For some groups, the governance committee coordinates a full board evaluation, while other groups may engage an external consultant to facilitate the process. Some potential outcomes of an assessment are re-aligning the board on key issues, setting priorities, and strengthening overall performance.

Robin Hood thanks our partners for their contributions to the content of this blog post.

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