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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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Setting the direction and values that guide the organization.
Specific areas where you know you’ll need support: HR, finance, SEO, etc.
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.
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.