Once Again: What Makes for a Successful Nonprofit Board? – Reissue

Once Again: What Makes for a Successful Nonprofit Board?

By: Eugene Fram

Successful nonprofit boards come in a variety of organizational structures and sizes, largely determined by the their mission, vision and values. However, Carter Burgess, Managing Director & Head of the Board Practice at RSR Partners, an executive recruiting firm, suggests three of the most prominent success factors. Although his article is directed to for-profit boards, there are many suggestions that apply to nonprofit boards.

Board Composition
1. Alignment – Board members backgrounds and interests should align with the mission, vision and values of the nonprofit. While it would be foolish to have, for example, a cancer support board totally composed of cancer medical specialists, it would be helpful to have an accountant who has survived the disease or has a close relative who has been touched by cancer. A pediatrician who has lost a close relative from the disease would be another type of candidate. On the other hand, many nonprofits find themselves deprived of directors with strategic planing skills. Consequently direct alignment is not as important as with persons with these skills.
2. Right Questions – Obviously these experiences will enable the director to direct critical questions to other board directors and the CEO.
3. Active vs. Retired – “Given the ever shirking pool of active …(managers) who have capacity for board service, retired… (ones) are a logical alternative” But a careful balance between the two groups is needed.

Board Culture
Never under estimate the impact of organization culture. It is always around but can become quite contentious when change is talking place. “A board should possess a culture that is based on independence of thought, collaboration, honesty, mutual respect, (especially between the chair & CEO) and transparency.” …. “[I]deal; director attributes include but are not limited to: high intellect, the highest integrity, sound judgment …good old common sense, team player, ability to challenge in a constructive way, calm under pressure, think strategically, and get down into the weeds when absolutely necessary. “ For example, be prepared to assume some management responsibilities in an extreme crisis. Review new director backgrounds with care
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  1. Dr. Fram, what do you think about having a balance between “young” and “old” board members? You touch on active vs. retired, but I’ve been seeing a lot of chatter lately about age balance as well. What are your thoughts?


    1. Erika: I think you need a balance. Enough younger directors to raise what appear to be the “naive” questions that, on second thought, can have real mission impact. Enough older or retired people who have more life experience, and hopeful more board experiences, who can by their actions model what is desirable board questioning. For example, how to pose the sensitive questions that an audit committee should pose.

      Thanks for the insightful question.


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