Now that school is back in session, nonprofit boards will be meeting regularly and gearing up for the fall season of Giving Daysannual letters and strategic planning. Did you know that the Latin root for governance (gubernare) means to guide or pilot a ship? It is a great way to think about governance within the social sector. It means a collective group of passionate individuals guiding the nonprofit to the destination (the vision) with a roadmap (the mission and strategic plan). But we also need to establish norms as a group that help ensure everyone is doing their part. To that end, we have developed “7 Habits of Highly Effective Board Members.”

In the most successful nonprofits, highly effective board members:

Remain Diligent

The best board members are diligent. They show up to meetings on time and prepared. They effectively manage their schedules so they can best support the organization, including planning vacations around important events. They also manage any conflicts of interest proactively.

Stay in Their Lane

Governance between the board and CEO needs to be an intentional discussion to determine the best governance guardrails, especially as nonprofits move from one lifecycle stage to another. The best solution is to have clear boundaries and a pre-established governance model. The best board members (outside of idea or start-up phase) let the CEO or Executive Director, together with staff, run the organization. They never reach out to staff without copying the CEO or Executive Director. They also recognize that they don’t have individual power; their power is in collective action.

Act as Ambassadors

Board members should always have their elevator pitch ready at all times to tell the story about the organization as well as why they are involved in the organization. Their board role should be listed on their LinkedIn bio, and they should also leverage social media to share their nonprofit’s news more widely.

Build Relationships 

One of the key roles of a board collectively is to help raise money for the organization, which comes in three ways: finding prospects, asking prospects and thanking current donors. Every board member should be involved in at least one of these activities and have a goal set for their efforts that is connected to their network and ability to give.

Proactively Plan Their Succession

For many board members, succession is an afterthought. But the best board members assist with onboarding new board members, answering any questions and helping them get up-to-speed. And they also help find replacements for themselves on the board – before their term expires.

Practice Collaboration

Great boards are never quiet. They should have active meetings where tough questions are asked and issues are resolved through collaborative thinking. They see themselves as partners with staff, not having power over them but sharing power with them.

Show Appreciation

A mentor of mine said that the best board members should be “quick to praise; slow to criticize.” Many nonprofits have staff members who wear multiple hats and are stretched thin, so verbal and written praise go a long way. I even know of one board that hosts an Annual Employee Appreciation Day and buys and serves lunch for all staff that day.

Due to summer vacations and COVID-19, we know many boards need some help not only getting acquainted but staying the course together. To that end, we wanted to share one of our favorite ways to accomplish this task – the game of BINGO. We use it two ways: as an icebreaker to get to know other board members at a retreat or happy hour AND as a competition among board members on activities they can do to support the organization. We have linked our PowerPoint template for you to use for both purposes.

We would love to hear your reaction to our 7 Habits as well as our BINGO exercise. We’re all in this together!


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