Recently I was asked what question that I, as a fundraising consultant, hear most often. Right after, “How can we raise more money?” the most common question is this: “How can I make my board more effective?”
When asked that question, I always respond with, “That’s entirely up to you.”
A board is only as good as you, the chief development officer or executive director, make it. Board members can be a phenomenal resource—indispensable, really—or a lost opportunity. Or even a liability.
Let me offer some fundamental advice to ensure you get the most out of yours.
Take responsibility for shaping your board. Assuming you have such latitude (i.e., your board isn’t appointed by an outside agency or government official), you can choose your membership carefully and not simply let board members do that for you. Imagine someone else choosing your staff; would you let that happen? You know what you need, so go out and get it.
Determine what, exactly, you do need. Board members can complement staff resources, adding value where you don’t have it. Do you need financial expertise? Legal? Human resources? Marketing and communications? You’ll want a range of talent covering a wide array of such concerns, but some may be more pressing than others. If you need a great starting pitcher, don’t recruit three outfielders.
Be clear about expectations. You have new board members who are eager to help. Now what? Don’t rely on bylaws to spell out what you need. Be specific. Charge people with specific tasks and establish short- and long-term goals. Put together committees focused on outcomes and not just policy reviews. A development committee, for example, should help you raise money and not just keep tabs on how you’re doing it
Provide board members the training they need to succeed. Most organizations have some form of orientation for board members, but ongoing training and education is essential. It’s not enough for them to know about your organization; they have to be expert in what they’ll do for it. Think about outside counsel to help with elevator pitches, making the ask, planned giving essentials, and so forth. Give them reading assignments that put your organization into context and enable volunteers to act and speak more confidently about you and your mission. Don’t assume board members know enough to do their jobs well.
Continually review progress and evaluate effectiveness. Establish metrics and specific outcomes you seek to achieve so you can measure your success. Let your strategic plan guide you on this. Have your board members met their obligations on time? Now, we all know that there’s little recourse if board members don’t produce, but they can’t claim you weren’t clear about measurable expectations. And don’t underestimate the power of peer persuasion.
The good news here is that ability to create an incredible board lies in your hands. The bad news is that it might take time, especially if you don’t currently have the array of talent you need and are saddled by pesky term limits. Be patient. Meanwhile, take some steps outlined above to motivate the people you do have while you continue to shape the board of your dreams.
If you want to discuss ways you can recruit, engage and develop your own dream board, you can reach me at
513-241-6778 or email@example.com.
By Elizabeth Kohler Knuppel