Board Accomplishments as printed in the CT Nonprofit Advantage November 2015
Question: For a number of reasons, half of my twelve-member board is comprised of new members. In their orientation member responsibilities were outlined including that all must show-up for our bi-monthly meetings and make some kind of contribution (time, money, connection). Curiously, the one question we didn’t have an immediate answer to: what exactly did we accomplish last year? What should the answer be?
Answer: The answer, not surprisingly, is complicated and in answers the big bucket question: does a board really matter?
To provide an answer to this question, I am going to share what I know to be commonly understood as expectations as well as offer some of my own opinion gleaned through experience.
In the common understanding category, a nonprofit board, is the “owner’ and as such is responsible in legalese terms, for fulfilling its fiduciary duty of care.
There are three activities generally recognized as accomplishing the duty of care:
- Planning: setting direction specifically, stating what the board expects to happen because of the nonprofit (aka: what results)
- Policy development (establishing the “rules” including what is imposed by other parties (regulators and donors) and what is imposed by the board including values), and,
- Evaluation (aka, providing oversight).
As part of these three activities, a board must also define itself (governance) including:
- Determining and recruiting who should be at the board table and/or who should be involved in informing the fiduciary duty (there are constituents who can inform and support this function well);
- Being clear about the processes for engaging and informing this work (e.g. committees and meeting attendance); and,
- Understanding what extent the board has done its job and how well (e.g. a dashboard and scorecard).
So, while all this work may initially sound a trite unemployment and perhaps not making as much a difference in the big picture, imagine an organization where the board does not fulfill its duty of care by carrying out these three activities. Imagine more specifically, a pilot or ship’s captain who leaves port without determining where the ship is going; what the course will be; who will be steering on the day-to-day (and other similar details); and what is the end or even whether the trip is over (evaluation and oversight)
The analogy begins to get choppy at this point but the significance of the body so identified as the board of directors not addressing these elements can leave a nonprofit sitting afloat without purpose and or impact and for a while, until the money runs out ,(which it will without these elements), ready to sink.
But wait, there may be more! Like any owner, board members can have an impact beyond the work they do as planners, policy developers and overseers. Individual members in infancy or juvenile stages of board development may have to roll up their sleeves and volunteer fulfilling the roles of staff and even management. In the adolescence stage they may still be volunteering or helping the board make the transition into the mature stage where they singularly play the role of “owner”.
But no matter the stage, members may also contribute their time as public educators and advocates for mission. Members may also represent the organization to the and in the community ensuring that the organization knows and understands community needs. And, of course, members may give or get resources to help support mission. All of these roles must be understood and agreed upon by the members. But what board member who is a passionate owner dedicated to ensuring mission success wouldn’t want to take-on these roles?
In summary, a nonprofit board can make an indelible mark on an organization. Providing direction and parameters and reviewing progress to make adjustments is a responsibility given to no other entity within a nonprofit. With solid directions and sound policies, positive impact occurs. And, of course, if board members engage in taking the mission to the public be it through advocacy or getting or giving funds, a whole other level of impact is realized.
Bottom line, boards matter to a nonprofit. The evidence is a nonprofit without a board engaged in fulfilling its duty of care.