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Your guide to building a dynamic board of directors for your nonprofit

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One of the most important decisions you’ll make when starting a nonprofit is building the board of directors. They are the ones determining the direction of your nonprofit, so it’s important that they are committed to your mission and have its well-being in mind. But how do you find good board members and build a quality board of directors?

What is a nonprofit board of directors?

A nonprofit board of directors is a group of elected individuals responsible for the nonprofit’s governance. They are responsible for overseeing the budget, ratifying bylaws, and making sure the nonprofit stays true to its mission.

A board of directors' main responsibility is setting the goals of the nonprofit, approving the budget, and overseeing the operations. While the board is not involved in the day-to-day management, they should have a say in guiding the day-to-day decisions. That doesn’t mean that they should be micromanaging. It means that the board of directors is responsible for holding the executive director accountable for achieving the nonprofit’s goals and choosing effective steps to work towards their mission.

6 people sitting around a table having a meeting. This could easily be your nonprofit board of directors!
Photographer: Mapbox | Source: UnsplashPhotographer: Mapbox | Source: Unsplash

Board of Directors basics

While every nonprofit needs a board of directors, building your board needs to be more than just checking off a task on your to-do list. A strong board of directors will do a lot of good for your nonprofit and advance its mission, but a weak board can lead it to disaster.

Building a strong and effective board takes a lot of time and effort. To have a strong board, you must recruit intentionally, set expectations, develop a healthy culture, and do regular assessments of your board.

Let’s talk logistics!

The IRS requires a minimum of 3 board members and at least one meeting a year; although, this can vary by state. While these are the IRS minimums, that doesn’t mean that they will be the right fit for your nonprofit.

How often should a nonprofit board meet?

Best practice suggests that a nonprofit board of directors meet once a quarter. This allows board members to be up-to-date on what is happening within the nonprofit. If your board feels connected to what is happening at your nonprofit, they can make informed governance decisions. If they have a pulse on the organization, they’ll be better able to ask good questions about the budget, have input into strategic decision-making, and hold your nonprofit accountable to its mission.

What size should a nonprofit board of directors be?

When considering the size of your nonprofit board of directors, there are many factors to consider. A smaller board of directors is less likely to have all the needed skillsets that your nonprofit needs. If you don’t have a diverse set of skills and people who understand different aspects of your work, then it is unlikely they’ll be able to effectively govern your nonprofit.

On the other hand, have you ever tried to make a decision on where to eat out with 15 friends? Once you get a large group of people together, decision-making slows down.

That’s because you have more opinions to negotiate. And more likelihood that two people will dig their heels in on different opinions.

Disagreement that is meaningfully navigated can benefit your nonprofit! It leads to more informed decision-making and consideration. But when a conflict doesn’t lead to better understanding, it leads to division. A divided board is less likely to accomplish anything meaningful.

A board of directors that’s between 5-7 members will likely have a good range of skills for your nonprofit, while not being too large that it becomes difficult to manage. This is a smart size to start with, and you can always grow or change your board size as time goes on.

Set term limits for your board of directors!

While the IRS doesn’t have any guidelines about board member term lengths, this is something crucial to consider! You don’t want an indefinite board. Fresh perspectives and new voices can help your nonprofit stay fresh, informed, and up-to-date with best practices. This also gives an out if a board member isn’t working well or loses passion for your mission. If the board becomes dysfunctional, it is more difficult to bring necessary changes without term limits.

It’s smart to plan for staggered term limits so that your board doesn’t all turnover at the same time. Typical term limits are between 1 and 5 years. Remember that board members can always be reelected, so term limits aren’t saying they’ll have to be done at that time. With term limits, your powerhouse board members can be re-elected, but you still make space for new members with fresh perspectives.

New board members are typically nominated and then voted on by the current board. So keep an eye out for anyone who is passionate about your mission and assess their skills to see if they could be the right fit.

Determine what skills your nonprofit needs on its board of directors

Depending on the type of nonprofit you are running, you’ll need different skills and people who understand the specific landscape of the work you’re doing. But there are some standard qualifications that are typically helpful. Your board members should be passionate about your cause. They should be invested in the work of your nonprofit and willing to donate.

Setting expectations for your nonprofit board

So, you have a few people in mind who might make good board members. Maybe they are passionate about your mission, have a lot of connections, or are financially well off. But serving on a board of directors is not a casual commitment. It’s important that you invest time in understanding what you need from your board members and are sure to communicate that clearly. So how do you do that?

1. Create a job description for your nonprofit board of directors

Serving on a board of directors is a job. It takes time, dedication, and serious commitment. Make sure anyone you consider recruiting knows what you expect of them. Board members will have to attend meetings, give time to your nonprofit, and should also be both donating to and fundraising for your nonprofit!

Layout the qualifications, skills, and expectations of the role. Use this free template to get started!

Click here for the free template

After scouting potential board members, you can share your job description with anyone who shows interest in serving on your board. Give them a set amount of time to consider the position, and plan to follow up with them after that time. This will help ensure that you have board members who have thoughtfully considered if they are able to give the needed time and attention to your nonprofit.

2. Build an orientation process to encourage board success

A board member will be able to more meaningfully contribute to your nonprofit if they understand their role and responsibilities. By taking the time to create a board of directors orientation, your nonprofit will help start board members off on the right foot! Keep things informative, but also light!

Ideas to create a quality orientation:

  • Make sure your new board member has a copy of the “job description,” so they can set their expectations.
  • Have the board chair follow up with the new board member before their first meeting.
  • Assign a veteran board member as a “board buddy” to the new board member.

Create a packet that includes:

3) Remind the board of directors that they’re in partnership with your nonprofit!

Your board members need to be comfortable asking tough questions and challenging decisions being made, while also trusting the decisions of the executive director. This is a difficult balance to find. But when you get it right, it leads to a productive board and a healthy nonprofit. So how do you build a partnership?

  • Keep the board informed and knowledgeable about what is happening within the nonprofit.
  • Invite their opinions, ideas, and questions with an open mind.
  • Be open to feedback and constructive criticism and consider the ways you can apply that feedback in the future.
  • Educate your board members on best practices and what is working well for your nonprofit.

Planning for your nonprofit’s future

Two women sitting at a table discussing the future of your nonprofit board of directors.
Photographer: Christina @ wocintechchat.com | Source: Unsplash

When you create a pipeline of potential board members and plan for board succession, you are preparing your nonprofit for future success. To develop a successful succession plan, you’ll need to do an assessment of your current board of directors. Are there any skills or experiences that are missing? If so, create a plan to recruit and develop new board members who can fill these gaps.

Update your orientation regularly, so that it aligns with your nonprofit’s expectations. And be sure to support potential board members, so that they have a clear understanding of roles and expectations.

Finally, regularly review and update your succession plan. This may involve revising objectives and strategies. When you have a strong succession plan, you’ll improve your impact and ability to meet your nonprofit’s mission!

Building a board of directors for your nonprofit summary

Having a board of directors is essential for your nonprofit.

When it comes to logistics, you’ll need to determine your board size (a minimum of 3 board members), the frequency of your board meetings (at least once a year), and set term limits for members.

Set expectations for your board of directors by creating a job description and orientation that fits with your nonprofit. Remind your board that they are in partnership with your nonprofit and invite insights, questions, and new ideas.

And finally, plan for the future success of your nonprofit by creating a board succession plan. There will be turnover in board members, for better and for worse, but if you’re intentional, then you can continue to build a healthy and strong relationship between your nonprofit and its board of directors!

Elisha Ford
Content Writer
Written by
Elisha Ford
Content Writer

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