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“A board is about being surrounded by wisdom.”

– Anne Marie Burgoyne, Managing Director, Social Innovation, Emerson Collective

Building a board is a necessity as a nonprofit. Building a thriving nonprofit board, on the other hand, is a possibility (and only happens with thoughtful preparation and execution). When done right, nonprofit boards don’t just provide operational and strategic support – they help you define a path to success as your organization grows.

Throughout this chapter, we’ll share expert advice and tips on building a thriving board from Anne Marie Burgoyne, Managing Director of Social Innovation at Emerson Collective. Anne Marie has served on nearly 30 nonprofit boards throughout her impressive career as a leader in social entrepreneurship.

*This chapter was developed from the teachings of Anne Marie Burgoyne, who has generously spoken during the Fast Forward Accelerator program for five years.

Basics of Nonprofit Boards and Advisors

So what exactly is a nonprofit board, and what are its responsibilities? The board  – or board of directors – is an organization’s governing body. It oversees your nonprofit’s activities, like finances and hiring the CEO and Executive Director, and helps drive your overall strategy.

Legally, nonprofits are required to have a board of directors. You need a board to incorporate as a nonprofit, gain tax-exempt status, and apply for a bank account. The minimum number of nonprofit board members needed varies state by state, but generally you need at least three. Especially early on, your board will have a huge impact on the trajectory of your tech nonprofit. That’s why choosing the right founding board is key!

As Peter Gault, Founder and Executive Director of Quill, likes to say: your board can be a ballast to your organization. It has the power to anchor and strengthen your tech nonprofit by adding experienced perspectives, clear thinking and direction, and legitimacy and trust with funding partners.

Nonprofit Advisors

There’s a whole other crop of expert individuals that can help you scale in all of the ways. Enter: advisors. An “unofficial” type of supporter, advisors can provide invaluable guidance for your organization on a variety of aspects. They do so at a lower commitment level than board members because they don’t have the formal legal responsibilities or decision-making authority of board members.

Advisorship comes in all flavors, shapes, and sizes. An advisorship is the perfect way to test out a relationship with someone to see if they’re the right fit for your board. Or, with someone who’s not right for the board, but whose guidance would be really meaningful for your organization.

Pro tip

Consider working on a project with advisors or potential board members, like tackling a product or business problem, to get a feel for their fit with your organization.

Choose The Right Founding Nonprofit Board

We’ll come right out and say it: the board is your boss. And in the early days, when boards are often composed of the friends and family of a founder, a board can be more hurtful than helpful if not done right. While well-intentioned, bringing in the wrong individuals can steer a tech nonprofit radically off course.

Building your founding board (and your board in general) should be centered around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). From the start, seek to bring in diverse perspectives and experiences to your board – particularly from individuals who have experience with the problem you’re solving. When conducting a search for a new board member, consider which perspectives are missing from your board. A DEI-informed board building strategy will strengthen your nonprofit board’s ability to lead your organization with impact and social justice as north stars. See Chapter 5: Hire a Social Impact Tech Team for a more in-depth discussion of DEI.

Anne Marie’s Guidelines on Choosing the Right Founding Board

  • Choose people who believe in you and who are willing to stick with you throughout your tech nonprofit journey.
  • Find doers who bring specific skills.
  • Use your board to expand your network.
  • Bring on folks who understand finance, operations, and tech.
  • Make the board a safe place for conversation and for unpacking what’s going on with your organization.

Pro tip

If you think you’ll eventually invite someone to be a board member, recruit the person as an advisor as early as possible. Before Alex Bernadotte launched Beyond 12, she brought on a number of advisors who she engaged throughout the development process. This way, she not only got to test out these relationships, but already had full buy-in from her advisors when she asked them to join her board.

Pro tip

Create a board matrix that maps out all of the needs of your organization, where you’d like to have senior board members fill these needs, and who you’re targeting to bring on for these areas and why.

As you build your board, make sure you set board terms. Board terms, or the length of time someone will serve on your board, are a critical tool for governance. Term limits help keep trustees accountable, and make room for new members to join and infuse fresh energy and ideas into an organization. Board terms are one of the few ways you can transition out an underperforming board member.

What Nonprofit Boards Do

The main responsibilities of nonprofit boards fall into three categories: fiduciary, strategic, and generative.

Fiduciary. This is the stuff nonprofit boards legally have to do: things like approving your budget, financial planning for your organization, and so on. 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. That’s why it’s important to bring on doers with specific skills, particularly in the area of finance (i.e. accounting, budgeting, and auditing).

The Give/Get Model

One of a nonprofit board’s fiduciary responsibilities is to ensure that an organization has the resources it needs to operate. This is the reason that many boards become fundraising boards, where trustees commit to a fundraising goal that they contribute to themselves and/or seek out from their network. We call this the “Give/Get” model. It can take some time for a founding board to be ready to become a fundraising board – you’ll likely have to build up to it.

Regardless of the developmental stage of your board, all board members – all of them – should make a donation to your organization that is meaningful to them personally. A donation signifies an investment in your mission. If your board member isn’t willing to bet on your organization, that person probably shouldn’t be on your board. The amount of the donation matters less than the statement of the gift. 100% board donation participation is a signal to potential funders of the soundness of an organization.

Pro tip

Consider finding a board member who can do something you can’t afford to hire someone to do full time.

Strategic. Most nonprofit board members join for the opportunity to strategically support your organization. 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. That board member may have very different ideas of what the strategy should be than you, the founder, who spends 60 hours a week thinking strategically about your organization. Find a balance between listening to your board members and trusting your intuition. You’re the one with the most context.

Fundraising also falls under the “strategic” umbrella. Board members can play a key role in supporting your fundraising efforts, but if you’re asking your board to be your entire fundraising arm, you’re probably asking too much. (If you can make it happen though, that’s a big win!)

Generative. Generative board conversations infuse new insights into your organization. A generative board focuses on deeper considerations related to organizational identity and purpose. This includes deciding what to decide, assessing mission fit, and debating if what you’re doing now aligns with the organization’s intended impact. According to Anne Marie, you shouldn’t expect generative conversations to be the norm until three or four years into your organization.

Generative board meetings work best when they’re centered around one big, central question. This could be anything from “what problem are we solving?” to “where is our strategic plan taking us?” to “do we have the organizational and board leadership we need to take us where we want to go?” Generative board meetings are successful if discussion around your one big question helps you strengthen – or gain clarity around – your organization’s identity and purpose.

Board Size and Structure

Anne Marie chalks up decisions on nonprofit board size to one basic question: Do all board members know what they’re doing and feel like their feedback matters?

How about board composition? The broader your board is in terms of range of experience and expertise, the stronger it’ll be. As a tech nonprofit, you should aim to have board members with experience in the nonprofit and tech sectors, and in your issue area. Your members should hold a variety of roles – for example, Anne Marie says you should have one founder to every six board members, so you do the math.

Tips for keeping your board top-notch:

  • Discipline is useful. Make simple administrative practices and processes routine so they don’t fall through the cracks or build up over time. 
  • Consistency is key. Stick to a consistent meeting cadence for your board, like once every quarter or whatever makes most sense for your organization. High-performing boards meet more frequently than the minimum of once a year.
  • Meetings happen because of what’s on the agenda. Send meeting agendas and materials in advance! If you spend an hour in the weeds about small things, you’ll never get to generative conversations.
  • Founders & CEOs should avoid acting as the 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.”
  • Create camaraderie. You’ll likely see more board member success when members join in twos and threes. There’s a sense of “safety in numbers” when people join together.
  • Keep it current. Consider sending your board members regular news articles that fill them in on the sector.
  • Cross your Ts. Don’t forget that you need to have an audit committee and a treasurer or chair.
  • An inspired board is essential to effective leadership. If your board members are proud to be there, they’ll inspire others and will be champions of your organization.  

Schedule one-on-ones with each board member. From time to time, connect with board members one-on-one. For these meetings, send questions in advance, make the most of the time, and be transparent.

Where To Find Board Members

A good place to start for finding great fit board members is with your own networks. Consider who in your network cares about the issue you’re working to solve, and could also be a benefit to your organization in some capacity. Think back to mentors and volunteers who have expressed interest in your cause. 

Remember, you’ll need support with everything from hiring, to product roadmaps, to strategy. Where are your gaps in expertise? Board members could fill some. And you’ll always need to fundraise, so finding folks with relationships to possible funders is a plus. 

Outside of your network, consider posting on the Fast Forward Job Board (you can tag an opportunity as “Board Position”) and the Global Tech Nonprofit Community on Facebook. These are excellent places to find seasoned tech and social enterprise leaders interested in applying their skills towards board membership.

Empower Work’s Board Member Match Made in Heaven

Founder Jaime-Alexis Fowler was connected to board member Jennifer Habig when Empower Work, the text hotline for people experiencing workplace issues, was just a concept. Fowler needed support and expertise to help her launch and scale her idea, and Habig, who has deep experience helping organizations define problems and opportunities helped her do just that. 

Fowler was connected to Habig through one of her founder friends. She thought Habig would care a lot about Fowler’s idea, and could help her launch and scale. Habig has helped Empower Work think through what effective and scalable training for volunteers looks like, develop values and vision for its Board, and embody the values it wants to hold as it supports vulnerable workers.

“Jennifer has been a tireless champion, thought partner, resource, and more,” says Fowler. Habig’s passion for Empower Work’s mission, paired with her experience and expertise in helping organizations grow while staying mission-aligned, has made her an invaluable driver of growth and impact for Empower Work. Talk about a board member match made in heaven!

Finding Balance on Nonprofit Boards

There are two types of contributors on a board: steerers and rowers. Simply put, steerers drive strategy, while rowers execute in a number of areas to expand your organization’s resources. This concept, pioneered by Dick Chait and Bill Ryan, outlines the value of an even distribution of both types of contributors on a board. 

For an effective and high-performing board, actively manage the composition so you strike a right balance between steerers vs. rowers. In the beginning, you’ll need more rowers, and later, more steerers. Oh, and if you have a sleeper (or too many sleepers), take care of the situation quickly.

 

Steerers

Rowers

Superpower

The Strategist

The Fuel

Helps With

Setting the direction and values that guide the organization.

Specific areas where you know you’ll need support: HR, finance, SEO, etc.

How?

They’ll help with high-level things like ensuring resources are used effectively and giving the Founder and Executive Director feedback on how to do their jobs better.

They’ll execute, helping with pro-bono professional services, volunteer time, and (hopefully) fundraising support.

Join Date

Steerers will often join the crew in the later stages.

Rowers are extra crucial during the early days.

Nonprofit Boards are Constantly Evolving

A nonprofit board changes enormously during the lifecycle of an organization. Change is constant, and boards have to evolve to remain generative and impactful. Be adaptable and remember that changing board memberships can be beneficial in maintaining board health. New people bring new energy, networks, and questions.

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, and to Fast Forward’s Board of Directors for its constant support – Aston Motes, James Slavet, Rekha Pai Kamath, Oliver Hurst-Hiller, and Ime Archibong.

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