Re-activating nonprofit boards

Omowale Satterwhite
Omowale Satterwhite

Frank J. Omowale Satterwhite, Ph.D

Stimulating an inactive board is easier than it seems. 

It is all about rekindling people’s desire to do good mission work and better serve their community.

The key is to get people to think about their responsibility to a higher cause, rather than being focused on either themselves or the organization. They should think about the needs of the community and the stewardship role that they have been entrusted.

A lot of times, if you ask people to reconnect to a higher cause, then they are willing to rethink what they are doing, possibly even to the point of changing the culture of an entire organization.

Once you have changed the thinking of those who have been unwilling or unable to fulfill their role, then you work with the board members to create a framework for moving forward.

The board development discussion cuts across seven issues – board assessment, board purpose, membership/composition of the board, board committees, board leadership, board training and a work plan for the board itself.

  • The first task is to engage the board in assessing how it got to where it did in the first place.

  • Then ask the board to define the community impact that it wants to have and the type of entity it must become to be a dynamic agent of social change. 

  • Develop a strategy for recruiting new board members.  It is often helpful to create a matrix of the qualities desired by the board to ensure that you end up with the right mix of people.

    For me, the question is not only focused on the “who” but also on the “how.”  How do you communicate with people to make sure the fit is right for both parties? How do you get them oriented and engaged?

    Think about several key points in making sure your new board members are engaged — a good orientation, clarity of roles, and defined expectations.

  • Decide what board committees are needed – if your board is small, do not create lots of committees because this will not work.  Also set clear guidelines on how committees are to operate in relation to the board and staff. 

  • Board leadership is very important.  Every board member has a leadership role that should be recognized and valued.  Give attention to how youth leadership is nurtured by your organization.  

  • One of the keys to being an effective board is having ongoing trainings that address practical needs identified by board members.  Remind board members that they have an obligation to be active learners to best serve the community.

  • Develop a work plan for reactivating the board with short-term, transitional targets.  Be intentional about defining what you are going to do by what deadline, with whom and to achieve what results.

Once again, probably the most important is maintaining a focus on the mission work. The typical board often gets bogged down in administrative, operational, and financial discussions and spends very, very little time talking about the mission, strategic direction or programs of the organization.

The board ends up becoming a management overseer. Endless problems and headaches come with that.

You do have to assign those functions somewhere, but half the time you spend in board meetings should be spent in strategic dialogue about the mission work of your organization.  This way a board member is a little less likely to get tired of being a board member.

Frank J. Omowale Satterwhite, Ph.D., chair of the Oakland, Calif.-based Alliance for Nonprofit Management, is founder and senior advisor of the National Community Development Institute, a capacity-building organization that works in communities of color and low-income areas nationwide.  

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