Nonprofit Boards: It’s All About Impact

Participants at a local conference for board members recently shared what they enjoy most about serving on nonprofit boards:  impact… and serving the mission.

Then they rattled off a longer list of what they didn’t enjoy:   the time commitment, listening to reports, worrying about finances, fundraising, recruiting others, shelving the strategic plan, and so on.

On a hunch, I jotted their complaints to see what they had in common and there it was – it all focused on the tasks of boards and what they do, not why they do it.

Surely, no board members ever aim to surrender precious time away from home or work just to sign letters for an annual appeal.   They gladly give time, however, to ensure their neighbors have heat.  Or food.  Or quality education or healthcare or whatever their missions promise.

It seems ironic, then, that the work most likely to motivate board members commonly gets the least attention in meetings – it can be quite difficult, after all, to measure organizational impact, but relatively easy to approve the budget and review the 990.  In a climate of increasing public scrutiny, boards are demonstrating heightened focus on their oversight role and fiduciary responsibilities.

While that’s partly good news for the sector, it’s also not enough, especially when it happens at the expense of other critical board functions.   In their seminal work, Governance as Leadership:  Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards (John Wiley & Sons, 2004), authors Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan, and Barbara E. Taylor presented a model that includes three distinct modes of governance:

  1. Fiduciary – stewardship of tangible assets
  2. Strategic – setting direction
  3. Generative – deciding what to pay attention to, what it means, and what to do about it.

Their model outlines the importance of each aspect of governance and illustrates the interplay among them in striving toward mission achievement.   In a way, the three modes speak to the what, how, and why of nonprofit work.  (To learn more, read a summary by William Ryan.)

They also inform our thinking at BE, as we believe our board governance platform must facilitate each mode of governance in order to be effective.  And have impact.  That, essentially, is our why.

— Sonia J Stamm, Governance Consultant at BoardEffect

Sonia J. Stamm

Sonia J. Stamm is Governance Consultant at BoardEffect. Since almost our inception, she has shared a best practice perspective on governance with our team and clients, partnering to guide boards toward optimal implementation of our software. As founder and principal of a nonprofit leadership consulting firm, Sonia supports the evolution of mission-based organizations through her work in board development, leadership transition and succession, and organizational effectiveness. A seasoned facilitator, trainer, and consultant, she enjoys guiding boards and organizations through critical junctures in their development.