Anne Marie Burgoyne has served on nearly 30 boards throughout her impressive career as a leader in social entrepreneurship. Anne Marie is currently the Managing Director of the Social Innovation Initiative at the Emerson Collective. As an expert in the sector, we’re so grateful that Anne Marie returns year after year to teach the Fast Forward cohort all things nonprofit board development.
A thriving board is critical for any nonprofit. When done right, a nonprofit board won’t just provide operational and strategic support – it will help you define a path to success as the organization grows. Anne Marie says, “A board is about being surrounded by wisdom.” Here, we dig in to a bit of Anne Marie’s wisdom.
Choosing an Effective Founding Board
Oftentimes, early boards are composed of the friends and family of a founder. But, that’s not always the most helpful composition. Your founding nonprofit board is your first governing body. They’re your boss. Some helpful guidelines:
- Choose people who believe in you and who are willing to go with you on your tech nonprofit journey
- Find doers who bring specific skills
- Use your board to expand your network
- Bring on folks who understand finance and operations
- Keep the board a safe place for conversation and for unpacking what is happening
What do Nonprofit Boards Do, Anyway?
The main responsibilities of a nonprofit board fall into three categories: fiduciary, strategic, and generative.
Fiduciary: This is the stuff a nonprofit board legally has to do. Things like approving your budget, making decisions for your organization, etc. In the early days, it can be tough to align your board members with the fiduciary requirements needed, because as we mentioned, an early board is often composed of friends and family.
⭐ Tip: When selecting board members, don’t get stuck adding too many friends and family members. This can cause headache down the line.
Strategic: Most board members join for the strategy aspect. But having too much emphasis on strategy can complicate things. Say the average board member spends 12 hours a year thinking about your organization’s strategy. They will likely have very different ideas of what the strategy should be than you, the founder or employee, who spends 60 hours a week thinking strategically about your organization. This is also where fundraising falls, and if you’re asking your board to be your fundraising arm, you’re probably asking too much. If you can make it happen though, that’s a big win.
⭐ Tip #1: Find a balance between listening to your strategic board members and trusting your intuition. You’re the one on the ground.
⭐ Tip #2: Consider sending your board regular news articles that fill them in on the sector, so they stay engaged.
Generative: Generative board conversations change the way you see things. Anne Marie mentioned that she doesn’t usually see this type board form until 3 or 4 years in. A generative board focuses on deeper considerations, like deciding what to decide, assessing mission fit, and debating if what’re you doing now is what the organization is really about. Generative board meetings are successful if you leave with one really good question.
⭐ Tip: Meetings happen because of what’s on the agenda. Send the agenda and materials in advance! If you spend an hour in the weeds about small things, you’ll never get to generative conversations.
The Generative curve
Let go of your idea of “right.” Oftentimes, founders will secretly hold a mentality along the lines of: “I want these people to feel like they have buy in, but I also already have all of the answers.” This curve suggests that if you really want input that’s going to matter, you need feedback from people soon enough that it could actually change what you’re doing. Let it happen.
⭐ Tip: There’s no point in doing generative work if it never changes your trajectory. Be open to feedback and change.
Nonprofit Board Balance
For an effective board, actively manage the composition so you strike the right balance of steerers and rowers.This concept, pioneered by Dick Chait and Bill Ryan, outlines the value of an even distribution of both types of contributors on a board. In the beginning, you’ll need more rowers, and later, more steerers. If you have a sleeper (or too many sleepers), take care of the situation quickly.
Rowers: These board members are the fuel. Rowers can be helpful in specific areas where you know you’ll need support, like HR, finance, SEO, etc. They’ll be crucial during the early days when you’ll rely on them for pro bono professional services, volunteer time, serving as advocates for your organization, and support with fundraising to sustain the organization.
Steerers: These board members set the direction of the organization and decide which values will guide it. Steerers tend to be more present on later stage boards. They should help with things like ensuring the organization’s resources are used effectively, giving the Executive Director feedback for how to do their jobs better, and reading the HR manual to offer feedback. They should not be telling you how to manage your staff.
⭐ Tip: If you have tons of rowers and steerers, you have a high performing board.
Nonprofit Board Size and Structure
Decisions on nonprofit board size and structure should come down to one basic question: Do all board members know what they’re doing and feel like their feedback matters? As long as the answer is yes, your board is not too big. People often ask Anne Marie if they should have multiple founders on a board. Her suggestion is that you should have one founder to every six board members. If there’s a higher ratio, it’s likely not a good check and balance.
Discipline is useful. Make simple administrative practices and processes routine so they don’t fall through the cracks or build up over time. Anne Marie suggests that founders or CEOs avoid acting as their own board chair. “While you’ll have a hand in everything,” Anne Marie says, “in the end you won’t get to actively participate because you’ll be so busy running the show.”
⭐ Tip #1: You’ll likely see better board member success when members join in twos and threes. There is a sense of camaraderie and “safety in numbers” when people come in together.
⭐ Tip #2: Don’t forget that you need to have an audit committee and a treasurer or chair.
Maximizing Nonprofit Board Effectiveness
An inspired board is essential to effective leadership. If they’re proud to be there, they’ll make everyone else proud to be there. Plus, it’s so important to have some cheerleader types on the board. They will pull along the folks who care deeply but can’t show it.
⭐ Tip: Anne Marie suggests scheduling one on ones with each board member every so often. When you talk to them, send questions in advance, make the most of the time, and be transparent.
Don’t Forget About Advisors
Advisors come in all flavors, shapes, and sizes. It’s the perfect way to test out a relationship with someone who you’re not quite sure is the right fit for your board. Or, for someone who’s not right for the board, but whose guidance would be really meaningful for the organization. An advisor can be very different from a board member. They’re in a no-harm, no foul place as an advisor.
Boards are Constantly Evolving
A nonprofit board changes enormously during the life cycle of an organization. Change is constant, and boards have to evolve to remain generative. Be adaptable and remember that changing board memberships can be beneficial in maintaining board health. New people bring new energy, networks, and questions.
⭐ Tip: Consider finding a board member who can do something you can’t afford to hire someone to do full time.
Nonprofit boards can work for you, but they take work. Remember, change is constant, transparency is key, and generative board membership is critical to the flourishing of your board long term. Thanks again to Anne Marie Burgoyne for her indispensable guidance to our teams, and to Bloomberg for being wonderful hosts. And if you’re a tech nonprofit looking to recruit new board members, be sure to post your open positions on Fast Forward’s Volunteer Board.