Board effectiveness: Is expanding the answer?

Veronica Meury
Veronica Meury

Veronica Meury

A solid, enthusiastic and well-rounded board of directors is critical to the success of any nonprofit, especially in today’s belt-tightening economy.

As organizations consider how to best compete for coveted philanthropic dollars, many are wondering if expanding their existing board of directors is part of the answer.

Nonprofits have always struggled to balance the diverse abilities of all board members to contribute effectively while maintaining a fresh perspective.

Even today, when innovation is more important than ever, changing the size and composition of your board is no small undertaking, and should be done with the utmost care.

When considering a change, executive directors should ask themselves:

  • Is your current board accomplishing the organization’s mission and goals?
  • Are the board meetings productive and results-oriented?
  • Is the attendance where it should be?
  • Are members engaged enough to come up with new ideas?

If you answered “no” to one or more of the questions above, it may be time to look at expanding or changing your board. It’s important to look at a few key elements that should be considered when reevaluating your board.

Does size matter? There is no one-size-fits-all formula to determine the optimal number of board members. The process should begin by looking at the current size of your board and asking if this number is enough to effectively meet your organization’s objectives. Generally, a good working board has 10 to 20 directors. If a board goes over 20 members, administrative functions become unwieldy and individual contributions may be marginalized.

Diversity rules. The composition of your board is a vital element of any expansion. Is your board’s structure in line with the challenges that lie ahead or are there holes? Is there a balance of viewpoints? Are there any critical needs that have gone unfulfilled? Evaluate and appoint new directors based on the value they bring to the board in terms of skills and background.

A diverse group of people is more likely to consider various perspectives when approaching a problem or opportunity, and more likely to come up with creative solutions. Cultural and racial diversity is critical, because it is your face to the community and can open many doors and introduce unfamiliar resources. Carefully seek out diversity of expertise including sales, marketing, legal and finance.

Relationships are key. When you begin expanding your board, it is all about relationships. Never approach anyone cold. Start with referrals. Remember to first fill upcoming gaps created by directors whose terms will soon be expiring or by others who no longer have the time they once did to contribute to your nonprofit’s mission.

Think outside the box. Do not eliminate new board candidates because there are no obvious connections between your nonprofit and their profession or company. It is hard to ask people to volunteer their time when an economy in recession is dictating that individuals concentrate more on themselves. Craft the case for your mission and community support. Focus on mutual benefits. Making new members successful translates to a stronger board of directors.

A successful and strong board is always open to reviewing how effective it is and making sure its members are on target with the organization’s mission.

Veronica Meury is vice president and executive director of Universal Technical Institute Foundation, based in Phoenix. She has more than 30 years experience in the nonprofit sector.

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