Posted , by Erin Phillips, Campaign Consultant. Topic: Board Development.

Last week we attended the first of the 2012 AFP-Hampton Roads luncheon series. Susan Hirschbiel,¬†philanthropist, community volunteer, and recipient of the National Philanthropy Day 2011 Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser, spoke on the topic of building a strong board. It’s not often that nonprofit professionals have the opportunity to hear about board service from an actual board member, not to mention one who is so passionate and renowned in the community. Susan provided insightful ideas based on her fifteen years of serving as a board member, fundraiser, and patron of arts and education in Hampton Roads. Below is a summary of her presentation.

Key strategies for building a successful nonprofit board:

1. Have a clear mission with a shared understanding between the staff and the board. There must be open dialogue and communication between a nonprofit’s leadership and its board members. It is the board’s responsibility to revisit the nonprofit’s mission and ensure the work of the organization remains on track to achieve the goals. It is also a good idea to share a complete staff chart with your board so they understand the operations of the organization and can recognize the names of all nonprofit staff members.

2. Create a diverse board. There should be a range of board members by geographic region, age, race and professional skills.

3. Set expectations with board members up-front. All volunteers must be informed of the expectations for their participation on the board (giving, meeting attendance, etc.). Educate the board about the investment that is expected of them. The number one obligation of every nonprofit board member is raising money. Prospective funders look for 100% board giving. It is fundamental to successfully soliciting donations.

4. Share all financial information with the board. There must be complete transparency with a nonprofit’s finances. Share short-term and long-term strategic plans with the board; all members should be familiar with the nonprofit’s budget. The budget should be managed by the executive director/CEO, as well as the CFO and audited by the board. It is imperative the nonprofit demonstrates fiscal responsibility and shares the evidence with the board members.

5. Institute term limits for your board. Three to five years is the maximum amount of time a board member should serve, but longer serving board members can be moved to honorary positions. Your board chair should serve a two-year term. There should always be a vice-chair who will be the next chair and an immediate past chair. The vice-chair is elected in the second year the chair is serving and learns from the chair during the year as vice-chair. The immediate past chair serves for one year after stepping down as chair in an advisory role to the current chair. Always have a succession plan for your board chair.

In addition to the aforementioned strategies for building an effective board (which we couldn’t agree with more, as it’s what we preach to our clients every day), Susan gave the audience a few pieces of parting wisdom which included:

  • Board size. There isn’t necessarily an ideal size for a board, but the key decision making should remain with a core group of members (approx. 5) which comprises the Executive Committee.
  • Board meetings should be held once a month at the same day of the week and time each month to help members plan for the year ahead. All meetings should be kept to one hour–no longer. Board meetings are not a time to review policies and have drawn-out discussions on certain items. They should be used primarily for reporting and providing updates. Board meetings should be run by your board chair and the nonprofit management is responsible for preparing for each meeting and assisting the board chair with setting the agenda. The nonprofit management is also responsible for taking minutes and distributing them at the following meeting for approval.
  • Solicitation. Susan reminded the audience to, “Always remember you are not asking for yourself, you are asking for a cause.”
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