We have a generally recognized concept in the nonprofit sector that new or small nonprofits should have “working” boards, loosely defined as volunteers who are doing the organization’s work while also governing. I will be controversial and say that this is just not working, and the concept needs to be reexamined and reframed.

I believe that we need to separate the work from the governing. Allow your board members to lead the organization while contributing in a way that makes sense to them.

Suppose you need volunteers to do your organization’s work. In that case, the proposed framework will help everyone have the exact expectations, focus on clear goals and outcomes, and move the organization forward TOGETHER.

This plan works if you need a complete reset of your Board or if you are starting out. 

The key to this framework is first getting clarity around the roles you need on your Board and then recruiting specifically for those roles (and not just for board members in general). This means that you might be turning down some folks. This can be hard to wrap your head around because you feel you need all the help you can get right now. But it is important to remember Jim Collins’ directive to “get the right people on the bus and in the right seats.” This directive applies to volunteers as well.

So, where do you start? 

First, you must base your actions on the knowledge that even in a small or new organization, the Board of Directors is a Governing Board. The Board has legal duties to serve the mission and govern the organization. When you add other expectations and responsibilities to these duties, it can get confusing.

So to start with, let’s go back to the basics.

It would be best if you had a small and mighty governing board that understands the legal duties of governance in the nonprofit sector. How do you get there? Here are a few tips:

  1. Keep it small and manageable.
  2. Ensure that the Board is well trained in nonprofit governance – fiduciary duties, roles, responsibilities, etc. (NPSK has a Board Bootcamp and can do personalized training for your Board.) 
  3. They should also understand the mission/philosophy of your organization and either know or learn the specifics about your programs and broader subject matter area. They should be willing to become experts in your mission, programs, and impact. The organization needs to take the time to ensure they know and understand all of this. Some organizations have a piece of every board meeting agenda dedicated to profiling the programs, mission, and impact to help them along the way.
  4. Clarity of purpose: What are they doing there? How are they fulfilling their duties and helping to advance the mission? How do they know they are successful (or not)? What are the goals of the organization?

In our framework, you need seven people who will commit to being Governing Board members and, in addition, commit to one of the following roles. You will note that I have almost all of them running a committee. This could be a “committee of one” to start. Each has a very clear purpose and goals that can be extended to a committee when appropriate.

Unless your bylaws dictate that committee members need to be board members, I recommend that there are seven roles for your board members, and they can recruit others for their committees who are not board members. (FYI – you can always change your bylaws if necessary.) 

  1. President or Chair – Your running partner in everything. Strategy, program, fundraising, compliance, finance, and communications. They will not spend as much time as you do on these functions, but they are your sounding Board and advocate externally and to other board members and volunteers. You should plan for weekly check-ins with your Chair and be 100% transparent with them. Talk through shared expectations from the get-go.
  2. Vice President or Vice Chair – Considered the next Chair, when appropriate. Until then, their main focus while VP is on board development – organizing board training, managing the overall board profile: who is leaving and how do we replace them, etc. The goals for this position are to create and manage a board matrix/profile, develop and manage a recruiting and onboarding program, and develop and manage a board development/training program. (NPSK can help you create a matrix and dive deeper with a Predictive Index profile)
  3. Secretary – Keeps the organization’s files straight with the ED (or Board Chair if you do not have any staff). This position aims to create and manage a system for all legal documents, contracts, and tax/financial records. As a team, the ED/BC and the Secretary will ensure that the organization complies with the organization’s bylaws and all laws and regulations – local, state, and federal. The Secretary also either takes the meeting minutes or oversees the taking of the minutes.
  4. Treasurer – Digs in, gets to know the numbers with you, and helps you strategize for optimum financial leadership. They can recruit a 2-3 member finance committee to help with financial oversight and strategy. Goals are to create and monitor the budget, cash flow projections, P&L, and balance sheet reporting; strategize future financial projections and manage investments, if you have any.
  5. Fund Development Chair – Builds a strong fund development committee to meet your organization’s needs. They need to know the fundraising basics – whatever suits your organization. It might be events, donations, or grants – and knows how to recruit others to help. Goals are income amounts in specific categories – events, grants, donations, etc. These need to correspond to or exceed budgeted income amounts.
  6. Program Chair – Builds a strong committee of program volunteers or advisors that help you navigate your mission area, help to track your impact, and keep the organization on top of research and trends in your mission area. Goals are tied to your impact numbers and specific to your organization and your mission area. They may also include professional development in the subject matter area or strategic partnerships.
  7. External Affairs Chair – Coordinates with the fund development chair and program chair to do what your org needs for marketing and outreach. Depending on your organization, this might be a complete service job, and the Chair will need to recruit other volunteers with specific skills. For example, graphic design, social media management, public relations, and media relations… or it might be all strategy if you have people or you are skilled and love doing this work. Goals may change regularly but could revolve around building your audiences (email, social media, etc.), press coverage, etc.

These roles may sound simple, but remember that making changes to any group of people may take some time. Most humans resist change. So think through implementing a new structure and consider how and when you will communicate the changes.

While the framework is simple and can be put into place swiftly, it often takes more than a year or two to implement fully. For your sanity, it is good to map out a realistic timeline for implementation. You can implement this quickly if you are down to a few board members. But if you try to implement this with a current board performing poorly, they may resist the change. You will need to leverage your “legislative” leadership skills” and make a plan before presenting the concept to them.

If you already have a working board and are hoping to change the structure, you need to start with the board chair, executive director relationship. Present the new structure to the board chair first (or the ED if you are the board chair reading this post). Talk it through and get an agreement on when and how you will make changes.

Recruitment Tip: When recruiting new board members, many founders/new nonprofit leaders tend to stick to “who they know.” But don’t be afraid to recruit outside your network. Many folks will introduce you to others who could be potential board members. Placing ads with very specific job descriptions/expectations can work very well. Pittsburgh has a nonprofit jobs board that will post volunteer opportunities for free (https://jobs.nonprofittalent.com/). You can also send out a notice to your followers via email and social media. Another way to get “new blood” is to ask your network for recommendations for new board members. Asking for something specific makes it very easy for your network to help you: “We are looking for someone to be the chair of our development committee, so I need someone with fundraising experience or event planning experience.

Once you have your seven core volunteers in place at the board level, allow them to recruit non-board members to be on their committee. Each committee lead will be able to identify the skills needed and then recruit with clarity because they already have a clear purpose and goals.

As always, if you have any questions, please reach out to us. We would be happy to help you put together the lean and mean Board of your dreams! Consider joining us for our Leadership Accelerator program on November 18th. You’re invited to explore your nonprofit needs further with us. We hope to see you there!