Schultz & Williams Principal M. Jane Williams has provided counsel for many nonprofit organizations over the years. In February, we sat down with Jane for a one-on-one Q&A to tap into her firsthand experience with nonprofit Boards. Our interview revealed valuable insight and strategies for cultivating and managing strong Boards.

Q. Looking back over the past 25 years, are there skills that Boards need today more than before?

Unlike 25 years ago, today’s Boards understand that fundraising is their main priority. One hundred percent of Board members should be expected to give annually and, equally important, to serve as key players in raising funds. When enlisting new Board members, organizations should consider candidates’ capacity to give as well as their fundraising experience and potential.

Q. What should people consider when asked to join a Board?

Do they have the time to commit to become an effective leader? Do they have a real interest in the organization? Do they possess a level of experience or expertise to advance the organization’s cause? Do they have the capacity to make annual contributions? Are they able to identify and reach new donors and actively fundraise? Are they willing to raise awareness about the organization and cultivate interest in its mission? Are they motivated to join the Board in order to partner with staff and maximize the organization’s success?

Q. What are the most common mistakes you see organizations make when assembling a Board?

Let’s put this in terms of some best practices for assembling successful Boards.

  • Nonprofits must provide sufficient training and solid orientation programs for new Board members, including introductions to key staff and information-sharing to familiarize them with the organization. Too often, nonprofits don’t take the time to properly acclimate new members, or it’s not in anyone’s job description to organize and manage such a program.
  • Nonprofits should recruit Board members based on their experience or expertise relative to the needs of the organization such as legal, business or communications skills; knowledge of the cause; or a tie to the mission. Prior successful nonprofit Board experience is important.
  • Two, three or four new Board members should be brought in concurrently so they can share the new-member experience; this provides a sound support system for acclimation. Bringing members in one at a time can make them feel alienated and wrong for the position, potentially resulting in the loss of good people.
  • As part of the recruitment process, Board candidates should be reviewed by a Nominating Committee to assess their interest, input and experience before asking them to join. To ensure that the best candidates are appointed, the Nominating Committee should make calls, vet candidates and be part of information-sharing discussions.
  • Current Board members and staff should be actively involved in recruiting new members.
  • Every Board member should be assigned to a pertinent committee that is managed by staff. Board engagement should involve all of the organization’s staff—as committee liaisons, fundraising partners, and as resources for educating the Board about the organization and its mission.
  • Boards often think they are in charge and responsible for setting the agenda for the whole institution. It is important for members to be groomed as partners with staff and to understand they don’t have authority to run the show.
  • Based on our experience, the ideal size of a nonprofit Board is 25-30 individuals. Larger Boards are too difficult to bring together on a regular basis. Established term limits can help to keep Boards at manageable sizes.
  • Some organizations today have Governing and Foundation Boards. Our firm’s viewpoint is that all Boards should be involved in both building constituencies and fundraising.

Q. What are best practices for reinvigorating a Board?

Conduct a retreat with the Board, organizational leadership and a professional facilitator to focus on a situation analysis of current challenges, successes, strengths, weaknesses, goals and objectives. The outcome of this session will help the Board work together on current and relevant issues, as well as define and strengthen its individual and collective roles.

Q. How can organizations find new Board members in highly competitive environments?

Nonprofits should look for people with a connection to their cause or mission. It’s also important to look for those who have been on other nonprofit Boards and can bring that experience to the organization.

Q. Some organizations need community or political representation on their Board – and these individuals do not necessarily come with fundraising capacity. How can an organization balance these needs?

Limit the number of required community members as much as possible.

Q. Why is it so difficult to get rid of some long-time Board members?

Too many nonprofit Boards serve for unlimited terms, making it very difficult to remove some long-term members and make room for new ones. Boards should have well-defined term limits. We recommend two- to three-year terms after which the member is required to rotate off of the Board for one year. Following that, he or she can return for another term.

Also, with or without term limits, if there is a concrete or circumstantial reason to remove a Board member from service, the leadership should take action to resolve that problem. Every Board should be governed by a set of by-laws to ensure such situations have been covered and can be resolved as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Q. What are best practices to engage Board members in governance and fundraising?

Set clear expectations when members come onto the Board and have adequate staff to steward and engage them at many levels. Board members who are exposed first-hand to an organization’s work will be the most effective. Well organized staffing of a Board is the key to success.