What Is the Role of a Nonprofit Board — Really?

Anne Marie Burgoyne, Managing Director of Social Innovation at Emerson Collective

I’m often asked what the primary role of a board is for a non-profit. There has been a lot written on this topic over the years, but given that I have been lucky enough to sit on a number of boards, I thought I would take a crack at this question in a pragmatic way.

Fundamentally, a board’s role is to steward the mission and vision of an organization. But given that non-profit staff often includes incredibly capable and caring people, this really is a role of co-creation, rather than uni-directional leadership. Being on a board provides the opportunity to ask hard questions, think generative thoughts, build a shared and flexibly policy framework, exploit organizational assets and mitigate possible risk, with other board members, staff and stakeholders as collaborators.

Given how the relationship between non-profit leaders and their boards has evolved over the years, I have observed that there are a series of roles that boards own that are multi-dimensional and increasingly interesting as they are stewarded well. As an organization evolves, as a non-profit leadership team grow stronger, and as a board norms and works well together, there are some tasks that boards should take on that become increasingly value-added.

Selecting a leader
BUT ALSO supporting and evaluating that person.

Finding and hiring the right profile of leader is incredibly difficult and important, as it requires a keen understanding of an organization — its programs, its team, the people it serves and its relationship to its stakeholders and community — and its needs. That said, leaders deserve to be given the tools to be the best leader they can be, which involves assuring that these leaders are incented properly, provided with substantial feedback and an annual review, and supported to make difficult and significant decisions. Board members are in a unique position to support non-profit leaders in this way.

Planning programs
BUT ALSO monitoring and strengthening them.

The process of thinking about the work of an organization is satisfying — the discussions fun and energizing. But holding that work to a standard to understand, measure and improve its impact is harder, and requires ongoing discipline, iterative exploration, and honest judgment. Boards and non-profit leadership teams that focus on measurement together are on a path to provide higher quality and quantity of service.

Amassing adequate financial (and other sorts of) resources
BUT ALSO protecting them and providing financial oversight.

Every non-profit leader hopes to have a board that brings donations of money, services and other assets to their work — and the ability of board members to attract resources to an organization is mighty. But, organizations need a thoughtful and organized budgeting process through which resource allocation is prioritized and approved by its board, and a reporting structure that enables board members to see levels of cash, as well as how an organizations’ costs are tracking to its budgeted goals. Boards that do not demand these tools are likely squandering dear resources.

Building public standing
BUT ALSO undertaking advocacy.

Board sitting is an act of public signaling — indicating that an organization’s mission, as well as the way that it does its work, is worthy of a person’s time and public reputation. Board members should be proud to tell others about their board work and the causes they support in this way. Changing the rules of the game in which good work is done — through advocacy and policy change — is a key component of successful social service work. This is often hard to do, and good outcomes are hard to achieve and take time, but assuring that board members are using their influence and social networks to change the social framework is an important and additive role of a board member.

Curating board composition and longevity
BUT ALSO pruning a board when members are not adequately contributing.

It is not the job of a non-profit leader to bring new members to her organization’s board. Boards need to be self-perpetuating to steward an organization’s mission with limited conflict of interest. Nominating committees need to be thoughtful about the skills, networks and experiences that should ideally be brought to their collective to make it stronger and wiser. But boards also should be mindful of when to remove members who are no longer effectively contributing (for example, because the organization has evolved to a place where their skills are less relevant, or because their lives have become more complex). There are structural ways to accomplish these changes (term limits and board contracts) as well as interpersonal ones (honest conversation), but assuring that there are norms and tools to manage attrition is important.

Boards and non-profit leadership teams working together is a powerful force to drive forward an organization and its mission. I have been heard to say “A better board makes you better!” and this means board members pushing beyond basic duties to take on tasks that are truly value-added.

Also by Anne Marie Burgoyne: “Best Practices of Nonprofit Boards