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Setting not-for-profit board expectations & increasing effectiveness


The most successful not-for-profit boards recognise that strong board performance is a critical ingredient in their ability to achieve a positive impact within their communities.

The volunteer members of your board will certainly want to achieve the greatest impact possible during their board terms. The path to increasing effectiveness isn’t always so clear, especially for new board members or board members with little not-for-profit experience.

Each board member’s unique characteristics, skills, and experience play a strong role in your board’s effectiveness, as well as board dynamics and the mechanics of running effective board meetings. It’s never been more important for boards to focus diligently on their missions to ensure sustainability.

Setting up clear board expectations right from the start is the key to increasing effectiveness.

Related article: Improving Board Education for Not-for-profits

What are the characteristics of an effective volunteer board member?

Your board members serve as brand ambassadors and advocates for your not-for-profit’s mission. For that reason, it’s vital to take a concentrated look at the character qualities of board member candidates.

These are some of the characteristics to look for as you draw from your community in recruiting new board members:

  • Passion for your mission
  • Charity-minded
  • Professionals that understand the role of nonprofits within the community
  • Community organisation minded
  • Good delegators
  • Team players
  • Professionalism
  • Strong leadership skills-“born leaders”

The recruitment and nominating process is a good time to highlight how each individual’s characteristics and skills will benefit your board and how they’ll contribute to board dynamics.

Not-for-profit board terms generally have term limits. As your board works together toward the goal of improving its effectiveness, it’s important to maximise the time that each board member has as a part of your board. That’s why it’s so vital to establish an informative board orientation process and to set the expectation for them to participate actively in board discussions from their very first board meeting.

When you develop your orientation process, be sure to include the topic of working as a team. Boards that rely heavily on one person to do the bulk of the work are not as effective as not-for-profit boards that share the work by dividing responsibilities.

The most effective not-for-profit boards work to incorporate a team mentality as part of their board culture. You can’t expect that to happen on its own. Your board will become more effective when you emphasise the importance of each board member fulfilling their individual responsibilities and their collective responsibilities as a member of your board. The goal here is full board engagement during board meetings.

Related article: Board Evaluations: The Complete Guide for Not-for-profits

Setting expectations for your board trustees

Your not-for-profit’s mission is unique and different from every other not-for-profit organisation. With that in mind, it’s unrealistic to set your board expectations based on the expectations any other not-for-profit board.

The following bullet points will give you some general ideas of board expectations to focus on:

  • Compliance and legal standards for nonprofit organisations
  • The importance of regular board meeting attendance
  • Having a strong commitment to fundraising
  • Being willing to serve on a committee or leading one
  • Using their personal and professional contacts to benefit the organisation
  • Arriving at board meetings being fully prepared to participate actively
  • Being willing to offer dissenting opinions in a collegial manner

Regardless of whether your board members have much experience in governance or not, you should require each board member to work on improving their leadership abilities in the area of not-for-profit board governance. Everyone comes to the board with their own unique perspectives and capabilities. Each one has something to learn from everyone else in the group.

Related article: 3 Reasons Why Document Sharing Apps Are Not Enough for Boards

Three important steps to increase your board’s effectiveness

Increasing your board’s effectiveness is simply a matter of making it a priority. The path to not-for-profit board effectiveness entails the right time, the right tools, and choosing the right focus areas for education and training.

  1. Incorporate the goal of increasing board effectiveness into your annual strategic planning process. Don’t be surprised if it’s difficult to get full buy-in from the board. Many of them may not see increasing effectiveness as a major priority. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of choosing your time wisely. Your annual strategic planning meeting is nearly always the best time to broach the issue with your board.
  2. Use the right digital tools to support not-for-profit board effectiveness. BoardEffect’s mission is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of not-for-profit boards. A BoardEffect board portal gives your not-for-profit board all the right tools to ensure board effectiveness. It fully supports your annual cycle, board development cycle, and your board meeting cycle. BoardEffect’s system Includes an online survey tool that’s perfect for performing annual board self-evaluations. Also, it offers a secure platform for restoring board orientation materials, board handbooks, meeting minutes, board training materials, board reports, compliance documents, and other important board documents.
  3. Choosing the right areas for not-for-profit board education and training. Patricia Hudson, the founder and president of Melos Institute (an applied research and learning center for membership-based organisations) says, “Leaders are born but are trained.” You can streamline the process for increasing board effectiveness when you choose the right areas for board member education and training. The Chartered Accountants of Canada recommends categorising education and training into the following four categories, as stated in their report, “20 Questions Directors of Not-for-profit Organisations Should Ask about Board Recruitment, Development, and Assessment”: Leadership, Procedures & Resources, Board Dynamics, and Relationships.

“The best leaders are always learning, always growing. They are never satisfied with the status quo. They seek out new ideas and perspectives, challenge their assumptions, and embrace the discomfort that comes with change. They are not afraid to fail, because they know that failure is an essential part of the learning process. And they are committed to building a culture of learning and continuous improvement within their organizations.” – Dan Cardinali, President and CEO of Independent Sector

These are some of the topics within those categories that you can incorporate into your goals for your strategic planning for the year:

  • Parliamentary procedure
  • Meeting protocols for in-person and remote meetings
  • Developing mission and vision statements
  • Being effective ambassadors and advocates
  • Policies and bylaws
  • Strategic planning
  • Understanding financial statements
  • Understanding the auditing process
  • Understanding board member legal responsibilities and fiduciary duties
  • The importance of committee work

As a rule, people that agree to become not-for-profit board members tend to be incredibly busy people. For that reason, it’s essential to maximise the time that you spend together. Make it a high priority to put in the time to plan your board meetings carefully, facilitate them well, and document your efforts. Your BoardEffect board management system can help your board members operate at peak effectiveness, individually, and as a group.

BoardEffect is designed with the unique needs of volunteer boards in mind. Our nonprofit board management software streamlines board processes, enhances, and delivers secure communication, helping you to become an efficient and effective board. Request a demo to find out how we can help your board be even more effective.

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