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Building a Better Board

Your governance truly shapes the course of a nonprofit organization, for the good or the bad. A strong board can lead an organization in engaging the community, setting a long-term vision, managing sustainable operations and human capital, and raising funds. They also oversee the organization’s finances and legal and ethical responsibilities, which we have seen in the news, can be a nightmare if not done properly. But, building an effective governance structure doesn’t just happen overnight; it must be developed intentionally with a number of key considerations in mind. The following can serve as a guide as you think through what governance means for your organization.

We believe that your board should be designed uniquely to enhance and maximize your mission delivery, which means that every board will be different, just as all organizations are different. We also believe that as your organization and its people, programs and mission evolve over time, so too should your governance. Governance structures are more flexible than you may think, and the sector shift toward streamlined bylaws and more robust policies can support a dynamic structure that can be adjusted as new needs arise.

When thinking about designing your board, it is critical to understand your organizational vision and be clear on how you want a governance structure to support the achievement of the vision. There are some rules around how a board is structured, but there are many shades of variation in the number of people on a board, roles, how they engage in leadership, committees, etc., so you can really build a structure that suits the way the organization wants to move toward strategic goals. Advisory councils or other informal volunteer groups can also serve strong leadership roles if you want to use one or more of them to advance specific programmatic goals, fund development goals, or to bring a broader community voice to your leadership.

Some of the typical goals for governance and boards that we hear from clients are to contribute funding, programmatic or policy input, serve as thought leaders, provide access to new funders or constituents, and serve as ambassadors. You might have something more specific as well, such as content expertise in education, or process expertise for changing healthcare policy at the state level.

Here you will see a few examples of board structures that we have seen at Olive Grove that begin to illustrate the realm of possibilities you can tap into.

This first example is probably the most typical structure, a board of directors with various working committees. We have seen anything from a standard finance committee to an individual giving committee, a strategy committee, and even a sustainability committee. Don’t limit yourself to what you see others doing in the sector; form committees that will advance your strategy and initiatives.

The second example illustrates a governance structure that is lead by the organization’s membership. A membership governance structure can be formed as your legal governing structure, or more informally with the membership providing leadership and guidance but not wielding legal power.

The final example shows a very collaborative governance structure, with a board and advisory council working together on programmatic vision, fundraising, and leadership.

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Moving beyond actual structure, the most common question we hear from clients regarding their governance is “How many board members do we need?” Sorry, no easy answer here! When considering size, an organization must keep in mind its strategic goals and what it will take to accomplish those. Do you need individuals from a diverse range of professional expertise to augment your staff knowledge and capacity? Are you going to undertake a large capital campaign and need more hands on deck with deep community connections? Or if your staff capacity is limited, will you feel more comfortable managing a smaller group of board members or would you like the extra capacity created by a large board? Before deciding the size of your board, begin with your vision and goals, and then ask yourself how you would like a board to serve those.

Once you have crystallized the overarching vision and structure for your governance, you can then determine what skills, background, expertise, and connections you want board members to bring at an individual level and then recruit against those profiles. Look out for upcoming posts to learn how to use a board matrix to track recruiting effectively, and some tips for your candidate interviewing processes.

Remember, no matter whether you are just forming an organization and its governance or doing an overhaul of your existing structure and bylaws, you have lots of options! Get creative and build what works for your unique needs. If you have an interesting board structure or new practices and ideas, share them with us! We’d love to hear from you.

Kristin Heller

Kristin Heller

Kristin joined Olive Grove in 2010 as its first Marketing Director. Since then, the firm quadrupled in size, and Kristin was a big part of that growth by serving in many key roles for the firm, including Consulting Director and Senior Consulting Director. Before leaving Olive Grove in April 2015, Kristin was a integral member of the leadership staff delivering exceptional consulting services to a diverse range of clients.