In most cases, a strong and sustainable nonprofit organization is successful in part to having an effective and strategic board of directors. An effective board provides governance, ensures resources are secured, focuses on legal and ethical compliance, and is responsible for sound fiduciary oversight.
The National Council of Nonprofits likens the board as the captain responsible for the overall safety of a ship: "One of the most important responsibilities for many boards is to hire and set the compensation of a talented CEO/executive director to run the day-to-day management activities of the organization. When there are paid staff in place, rather than steer the boat by managing day-to-day operations, board members provide foresight, oversight, and insight: think of them as up in the crow's nest scanning the horizon for signs of storms or rainbows to explore, perhaps with a pot of gold at the end!"
There are thousands of resources and books available about board governance and structure, indicative of how complicated board development can be. Here are some good places to begin your research if you are in need of board support:
- Best Practices for Nonprofit Boards (501 Commons)
- Principles for Good Governance and Ethical Practice (Independent Sector)
- Free Online Nonprofit Board Basics Program (CompassPoint)
- What Board Members Need to Know About Not-for-Profit Finance and Accounting (Jacobson Jarvis & Co.)
- Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards, summary (BoardSource) An all-time bestseller from BoardSource, Ten Basic Responsibilities explores the board’s ten core responsibilities in the context of the governance challenges facing nonprofits today. Purchase the book from BoardSource here.
- Tools & Resources on Boards and Good Governance (National Council of Nonprofits)
Other books providing great tools include:
- The Little Book of Boards: A Board Member’s Handbook for Small (and Very Small) Nonprofits by Erik Hanberg (2014)
- Nonprofit Financial Oversight: The Concise and Complete Guide for Boards and Finance Committees by Michael E. Batts, CPA (2017)
- The Nonprofit Board Answer Book: A Practical Guide for Board Members and Chief Executives by BoardSource, Third Edition (2012)
- Boards on Fire by Susan Howlett (2019)
- Onboarding Champions: The Seven Recruiting Principles of Highly Effective Nonprofit Boards by James Mueller (2021)
Check out our Board Training workshop series, a forum for executive directors and board members to network with colleagues, learn about specific governance topics, and discuss issues facing their organizations. All sessions are held at Pacific Tower in Seattle.
The Difference Between a Board and a Boss
While it is true that the board of directors recruits and hires the Executive Director (or Chief Executive Officer), and can terminate their employment if the majority of the board votes to do so, boards are not in a good position to act as if they are the boss of the ED/CEO. The first reason for this is that no board member is a singular authority. Actions must be taken by the full board. The processes required for group action are agreeing to an agenda, determining options to be evaluated, evaluating them using different lenses and points of view, and lastly, making a group decision. These actions, even under the best of circumstances, do not move quickly enough for the board to be telling the executive what to do about day-to-day management issues.
So, the board must put the organization in the hands of the executive AND ask for the information they need to collectively consider if the organization is performing and if the executive is meeting expectations. This will be made easier if the board decides before doing an evaluation what "doing a good job" looks like. The board can ask for regular reports that include measures of success. They can also conduct interviews with donors, clients, and stakeholders to see how the organization is viewed by others. If some board members feel there are issues of organizational or individual performance, the board must evaluate this as a group and determine next steps together.
More resources about the relationship between the board and the ED/CEO: