By Joanne G. Carman and Richard M. Clerkin
For all nonprofit organizations, board members play important roles in the work that they do. In small nonprofits, some might say they play an even more important role. While all boards of directors have a legal and fiduciary responsibility, according to our Trend Spotters, some boards are more governance focused than others. Moreover, while board members have a range of responsibilities, including selecting and supporting the chief executive, protecting the assets of the organization and providing proper financial oversight, Trend Spotters tell us that their boards spend the least amount of time monitoring and strengthening the organization’s programs and services. Many also experience challenges recruiting board members. The good news is that most Trend Spotters reported having good relationships with their board chairs, and many resources exist to help nonprofits improve the way the board functions.
In our last Trend Spotter survey, the majority of the nonprofit executives indicated that managing board relationships is troublesome – so much so that they were losing sleep at night. In particular, our Trend Spotters described how it was challenging to find “good” board members to serve. In an effort to learn more, we asked our Trend Spotters, small North Carolina nonprofits with budgets under $600,000, to complete a brief survey to tell us about their boards of directors.
Challenges in Recruiting Board Members
Unfortunately, 64% of the Trend Spotters indicated that they experienced challenges in recruiting board members, with many respondents commenting about how hard it is to find “competent” board members, who had “enough time” to serve, and were “interested” or “committed” to the mission. Some noted that it was challenging to fulfill commitments to board diversity, challenges in finding the right mix of “talent” or “skill set.” Some attributed this to being in rural or small communities with “limited” pool of volunteers to draw from, noting that “many people who would make good members already serve on a lot of boards.” Others acknowledged that the board simply needed to do a better job of recruiting new board members.
The nonprofit’s reputation, it seems, plays a role, as well. We received comments from both extremes. For example, one executive noted, “We are a successful organization with a good reputation in the community and people seek out the opportunity to serve on our board of directors,” while another noted, “Our board has a reputation for being somewhat dysfunction[al], and we have lost a number of good members due to lack of action.”
Responsibilities Matter More than Policies in Overcoming this Challenge
In writing for BoardSource, an organization that specializes in nonprofit governance, Richard T. Ingram (2008) outlined the 10 basic responsibilities for nonprofit boards. These ranged from determining the mission and purpose of the organization to ensuring that the organization has adequate financial resources (see also, Bridgespan, n.d.). Meeting these responsibilities provides boards with meaningful work. This engagement, rather than having good policies and procedures on the books, seems to play a large part in our Trend Spotters’ ability recruit board members. Trend Spotters who do not have a problem recruiting board members have boards that spend more time 1) determining the organization’s mission and purpose, 2) engaging in effective planning, 3) monitoring and strengthening programs and services, 4) ensuring adequate financial resources, 5) building a competent board, 6) ensuring legal and ethical integrity, and 7) enhancing the organization’s public standing than Trend Spotters that have challenges recruiting board members.
While it may be important to have policies related to nominating and removing board members, term limits, conflicts of interests, and job descriptions that lay out expectations for a board member’s time commitment and role in fundraising, we do not find any statistically significant relationship between any of these policies and challenges related to recruiting board members, in large part, because a majority of our Trend Spotters have these policies in place.
A Deeper Look at Responsibilities
Overall, the respondents indicated that board members were most involved with selecting the chief executive, ensuring the legal and ethical integrity of the organization, protecting assets and providing proper financial oversight, and supporting and evaluating the chief executive.
However, we find some interesting relationships between responsibilities and the size our Trend Spotter boards. As we expect, the work a board needs to accomplish may drive its size. For example, boards that engage in fundraising tend to be larger than average to leverage as many networks as possible in support of the organization’s fundraising goals.
Among our Trend Spotters, respondents with medium sized boards (ranging from 11 to 20 members) were more likely to report that their boards spent more time ensuring adequate financial resources, building a competent board, and ensuring the legal and ethical integrity of the organizations compared to respondents with smaller or larger boards. Moreover, respondents with larger boards indicated their boards spent more time being engaged activities related to protecting assets and providing proper financial oversight.
Regardless of size, the respondents indicated that board members were least involved with monitoring and strengthening programs and services.
Boards: Size, Meetings, and Types
Finally, we asked our Trend Spotters to describe their “type” of board. Not surprisingly, the majority (59%) of the respondents described their boards as “governing boards,” focused on overseeing legal compliance, finances, strategic planning and ensuring that the mission is being fulfilled.
However, some respondents (21%) did describe their governing board as “advisory boards,” providing advice or serving as sounding board for executive leaders. Just three percent of the respondents characterized their boards exclusively as “working boards,” responsible for carrying out the day-to-day work of the organization, and one respondent described the board as a “fundraising board,” existing primarily to raise money for the organization.
Most of the other respondents explained that the boards were a mix of these different types of boards. For example, as one respondent explained, “This board is governing, advisory, and they assist with fundraising.” Another respondent said, “Honestly, somewhere between governing and advisory. I am a strong ED, so that does factor [in].” A third respondent shared how the board was transitioning “from a working board to a governing board.”
In general, we do not find any real differences between the type of board and the challenges related to recruiting board members other than in our two smallest groups of board types. Our working boards do not report a challenge recruiting board members, while our one fundraising board does, once again returning us to that theme, of the importance of providing board members with a breadth meaningful responsibilities for the organization makes it easier to recruit new board members.
A variety of resources are available for those who interested in learning more board recruitment and board governance:
BoardSource (2015). https://www.boardsource.org/eweb/startpage.aspx?site=bds2012
Ingram, R. T. (2008). Ten basic responsibilities of nonprofit boards. (2nd edition). Washington, D.C.: BoardSource.
Bridgespan (n.d.) Building leadership: What are the basic responsibilities of nonprofit boards?
Hilland, M. (2008). The board chair-executive director relationship: Dynamics that create
value for nonprofit organizations, Journal for Nonprofit Management, 12(1), 1-10. Retrieved:
Howe, F. (2004). The nonprofit leadership team: Building the board-executive director partnership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Hyman, V. & Hilland, M. (March, 2010). Strong partners: Building an excellent working relationship between the nonprofit board and its chief executive. http://www.firstnonprofit.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Strong-Partners_Building-An-Excellent-Working-Relationship.pdf — Part of the 10 Things Every Board Member Should Know Series available from the First Nonprofit Foundation, Chicago, Illinois,
Joanne G. Carman is an Associate Professor in the Political Science and Public Administration Department at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Her teaching and research focuses on program evaluation and nonprofit management, and she is the coordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management.
Richard M. Clerkin is Executive Director and Associate Professor in the Institute for Nonprofits at NC State University. His teaching and research focuses on philanthropy and management and he is also the director of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management.