Nonrofit staff brainstorm at leadership development convening Photo by Lydia Daniller

Building Better Nonprofit Boards

Strong boards don't come out of nowhere

The nonprofit sector must challenge itself to push past ambivalence and realize the vital leadership role that boards can play.

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You’ve heard it a hundred times: strong organizations need strong boards. Few would deny this basic principle.

But (spoiler alert) one of the worst-kept secrets in the nonprofit world is that you’re much more likely to hear a litany of complaints about boards than affirmations.

Executives and staff tend to complain that either: a) their board doesn’t do a whole lot; or b) the board is too involved in their work and won’t get off their back. Meanwhile, some board members wonder why they’re even there if the board chair and/or the executive director make all the decisions.

Sound familiar?

For the past ten years, in my role as program director of the Flexible Leadership Awards program at the Haas, Jr. Fund, I’ve heard a lot of ambivalence about the role of boards. But I’ve also seen how, with the right support, organizations have been able to realize the potential of their boards, sometimes to transformative effects. Take the example of the LGBTQ Task Force whose board has played a major role in repositioning the organization’s work to stay at the cutting edge of advocacy for the LGBTQ movement.

In the first edition of what we hope will be a series on the “real-world insights” emerging from our leadership development work with more than 70 organizations,  we share some of what we are learning about how boards can become strong partners in effective leadership. Our insights are not theoretical; they are based on sustained work we’ve done to help organizations take their boards from net drain to net gain.

I hope that by sharing our experiences of what works (and what doesn’t) in board development we can contribute to more effective practice in this important arena. Strong organizations do need strong boards. But strong boards don’t come out of nowhere.

Download the latest insight brief: Board Governance