Building a Successful Board: 5 Secrets

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Building a successful engaged board is no small feat for exeuctive leaders.  We have 5 ‘secrets’ that will hopefully lighten this load.  We are aiming for not just any board, but a board that supports the CEO and spurs organizational growth.

This can be a game-changer for any organization.  Okay, they are not really secrets, but insights gathered from a recent conversation among seasoned leaders at one of our Executive Forums.  These leaders don’t want board members who are just present at meetings, but they want  truly impactful leaders.

1. Invest in Succession Planning with a Twist

Succession planning isn’t just about the CEO—it’s about the entire board, especially the Board Chair.  The twist?  Ensure too many leaders, or the wrong multiple leaders don’t leave at the same time.  During our conversations, one organization shared they develop their CEO and Board Chair succession plans in tandem with careful timing to ensure continuity of leadership.  

Staggering board terms strategically is critical.  There is almost nothing harder than most or all of a board turning over in one year.  It’s feels like starting the whole organization, throwing a lot of institutional knowledge out the window.  It’s very expensive.   Board terms can mitigate this risk substantially, plus new fresh blood (ideas, perspectives, resources) on the board is so refreshing for the organization.

Remember, this isn’t a race; it’s a relay, ensuring the baton passes smoothly from one leader to another.

As you onboard new members, setting expectations upfront is key, as is educating existing board members around changing expectations.  

For example, if you want a board that is active in fundraising, ensure everyone’s clear on their role.  If you want to be having conversations with board members between meetings (and hopefully you do to build relationships and engagement), share that as well.  If everyone is expected to work on a subcommittee, share that too.  

2. Methodically Create the Board you Want.

There is no magic wand; change takes time. Get ready for a marathon, not a sprint.  As new board members come in with aligned expectations, the organization gets stronger with each leadership transition.

Here’s the reality check: you won’t get 100% alignment right away. It takes time for expectations to seep in and become the norm, especially if you are trying to change expectations and boost engagement across an existing board. 

Engagement is a team sport. Initiatives like having each board member make donor thank-you calls not only make a real impact but create a culture of engagement.

3. Strategic Recruiting: It’s Not About the Title

When it comes to recruiting board members, focus less on titles and more on what they bring to the table. Forget the assumption that you need a lawyer on the board for legal advice.  You don’t want to build a board of consultants (you hire them!),  but a diverse team with rich professional experiences.

Recruiting is about identifying gaps in strategic thinking, not filling professional roles. Explicitly articulate why someone’s unique background is essential. Keep the focus on what they bring to the strategic table, steering away from day-to-day operations.

Here is a board matrix that can be invaluable in identifying the next skills and background you need when recruiting new members.

  • Embrace Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity isn’t just a buzzword—it’s a fundamental element of a high-functioning board. The importance of embracing diversity, not only in terms of professional backgrounds but also in terms of race, gender, and perspectives can’t be over-emphasized. A diverse board brings a richness of ideas, experiences, and approaches that can be a powerful asset in decision-making.

Inclusion is equally vital. Ensure that all board members, regardless of their background, feel included, valued and have a voice.  When individuals’ voices are heard and respected, they are more likely to actively engage and contribute.  A board that reflects the diversity of the community it serves is better positioned to understand and address a broader range of issues.

4. Spice Up Board Meetings: A Recipe for Success

Create a meeting agenda with some spice!  Start with a consent agenda (for the routine reports and actions they can read and prepare for ahead of the meeting) then include sections for fiduciary, strategic, and generative discussions. 

  • Fiduciary for the necessary business
  • Strategic for future planning
  • Generative for those open-ended, exciting discussions

What’s the secret sauce?

It’s all about time.  Stick to the meeting schedule.  Think short, focused, and action-packed. 

Nobody wants to sit through a never-ending boring board meeting. Engage them with intriguing generative questions, like “What if we got a million-dollar donation tomorrow? What would we do with it?” These discussions not only keep the board excited but foster a culture of forward-thinking.  Bring in guest speakers closely aligned to your work.  Bring in speakers who have unique points of view related to your work.  Get creative!

  • Continual Learning and Development

The best boards are those that never stop learning. As the landscape of the nonprofit sector evolves, so should the skills and knowledge of board members. Encourage ongoing education and professional development opportunities.

Underscore the importance of keeping board members informed about industry trends, fundraising strategies, and governance best practices. Whether it’s through workshops, webinars, or industry conferences, investing in continuous learning ensures that the board remains agile, adaptive, and ready to support the CEO with the latest insights.

5. Accountability Starts with the Board, Not Management

Board members need to hold each other accountable. If you’re chasing down board members for paperwork, something’s off. Holding each other accountable is part of the board chair’s job. It’s not about waiting for management to do it; it’s about leading by example.

Here are some practical examples of accountability leading to success. 

  • Ask every board member call and thank donors. 
  • Everyone is involved in fundraising activities, even if they’re not comfortable asking for money.  Here are some ideas for that.

—it’s not management doing it, it’s the board. Actions speak louder than words. Ideally every member is dialed in, willing to contribute, and live the cause.

  • Nurture a Culture of Open Communication

Communication is the lifeblood of any thriving organization, and it starts with the board. Emphasize the importance of cultivating a culture of open communication. Board members should feel comfortable expressing their opinions, concerns, and ideas. This doesn’t mean avoiding disagreements; it means fostering an environment where diverse perspectives are not just tolerated but celebrated.

Encourage board members to speak up during meetings, share their insights, and challenge assumptions. A board that communicates openly is better equipped to address challenges, strategize effectively, and ultimately support the CEO with a united front.

  •  Foster a Sense of Ownership and Pride

Ownership goes beyond attending meetings and casting votes. It’s about fostering a genuine sense of pride and responsibility among board members. Board members should feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. When they genuinely care about the organization’s mission and impact, they are more likely to go the extra mile.

Create opportunities for board members to witness the organization’s work firsthand. Whether it’s visiting program sites, meeting beneficiaries, or participating in events, these experiences deepen their connection to the cause. Pride in the organization’s achievements fuels a proactive approach to supporting the CEO and the entire team.

There are the 5 secrets to building a successful board.  Want one more?

Bonus: Celebrate Achievements, Big and Small

Recognition is a powerful motivator.

Take the time to celebrate the achievements of the board collectively and of individual members. Acknowledge milestones, successful initiatives, and personal contributions.  Save a spot on the agenda in every meeting for this.  Watch it change behavior.

How?  It not only boosts morale but also reinforces a positive and supportive culture.  Public mentions in the board meeting are just powerful. 

Other things that really touch members include a simple thank-you note, a mention in a newsletter, or a small awards ceremony.  Celebrating achievements fosters a sense of pride and camaraderie. It reinforces that each member is a valuable part of the team actively contributing to the organization’s success.

So, start with just one of the 5 secrets to building a strong board (plus bonus).  Incorporating any of these additional elements into your board development strategy can further solidify a culture of active engagement and support for the CEO.

A board that communicates openly, takes pride in its work, embraces diversity, prioritizes continual learning, and celebrates achievements is not just a governing body but a true partner in steering the organization toward excellence.

In conclusion, developing a strong board isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy. It’s a nuanced approach—succession planning with a twist, strategic recruiting, setting clear expectations, spicing up board meetings, and ensuring accountability. Remember, it’s not about filling seats; it’s about creating a team that’s actively involved in steering the organization toward success.

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