How Nonprofit Board Members/Management Can Make Sense of Sustainability

How Nonprofit Board Members/Management Can Make Sense of Sustainability

By: Eugene Fram

I recently read an article published in April, 2011 issue of the “Nonprofit Quarterly” by Jeanne Bell, titled “Beyond Financial Oversight: Expanding the Board’s Role in the Pursuit of Sustainability.’ I think the suggestions in it will be of interest to nonprofits whose budget expenditures are mainly centered around staff and programs and less on maintaining material & real estate.

First, the article calls for the establishment of a board Finance & Sustainability Committee not only to focus on past results but to… “be anticipating the next several quarters, too.”

Second it calls for nonprofit boards to spend more time on generative thinking 1, answering what if questions. Examples: Museum Board – What are the long-term impacts of selling long undisplayed antiques to private dealers? Children’s Residential Organization Board – To what extent might we also provide living facilities for the elderly?

The establishment of the dual committee achieves what my governance model has long suggested, i.e., only two standing board operational committees (1) an assessment committee that oversees financial and program assessment and (2) a planning and resource committee that has, in Bell’s terms, sustainability as one of its major responsibilities. An executive committee is the only other board standing committee.2

In addition, the article calls for
• All board members to be financially literate.
• Adding nontraditional members to the finance & sustainability committee who can ask “why” programs exist.
• Board understanding of why some deficit generating programs continue to exist.
• Board members to fully understand the business model the nonprofit is using.

1. William Ryan, Barbara Taylor & Richard Chait (2004) “Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards,” New York City, John Wiley Company.
2. See third edition (2011) of “Policy vs. Paper Clips.” Available on in paperback and Kindle format.


  1. Thanks for the post. Interesting on the board “spending more time on generative thinking” although it would be desirable this time won´t oversee time expent on the board´s responsabilities, like getting involved directly on fundraising strategies. A balance between strategic thinking and direct support to the ED is always desirable.


    1. I agree. Under my model both the ED and the board have joint responsibility for fund raising. The ED acts as the scout and brings in the board to do the “ask” and complete the deal. Also, depending on the size of the organization, the chief executive should be the president/CEO and the senior volunteer the Board Chair. Much better title for fund raising. See third edition (2011) edition of Policy vs. Paper Clips on


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.