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10/20/2017 12:00 AM

Nonprofit boards should require regular training to ensure board members understand their roles in the organization.

I recently heard from a long-time subscriber to Board & Administrator who sensed her time at the organization was coming to an end.

The North Dakota administrator was working with a very inexperienced board (average tenure: 1.5 years) and was being severely micromanaged because board members did not understand their role.

Here’s her story:

“I came to this position soon after the previous CEO had been fired,” the CEO said. The organization had just finished the year with a nearly $1 million deficit, following a year in which the nonprofit lost half a million dollars.

Tackling this challenge, the administrator stopped the unprofitable ventures outside of the nonprofit’s core mission areas and laid off all but essential staff. She also updated and enforced the organization’s credit policy to bring in receivables. Two lean years followed (one with a small loss, the other with a small profit) at the organization.

“We reduced total debt by nearly $1 million and the last two fiscal years we have grown,” she said. “The local Chamber of Commerce named our organization Business of the Year.”

You would think the board would be thrilled, but it wasn’t.

“Something happened during this period that cast a pall over the organization and my relationship with the board,” the executive said. The reason this organization was in such dire financial straits was because the board at that time didn’t understand its role, she said.

“No one on the board had ever received any training on the board’s job,” she said. “That changed when I took the position here, but this board only will attend a training grudgingly.”

Controversy erupted at the nonprofit when the CEO terminated an employee. Because the board didn’t understand its relationship to staff and the board’s role in personnel matters, it agreed to meet with the terminated staff member after he demanded a meeting with the board.

“This opened a real can of worms that took me months to resolve,” the administrator said. “Working through this mess also soured my relationship with several board members who could not keep their hands out of personnel issues.”

This is one example of why boards need regular training: When board veterans leave, the CEO needs to be able to rely on a core group of board members who understand the board member’s job. This requires regular training.

“After working through the staff termination issue with the board, two long-term members, including the chair, decided to retire. At that point, the board elected a new chair, and this individual decided ‘things had not been run right here.’”

The new chair believed it was his job to manage the CEO. This even reached the point where the chair managed the CEO’s work schedule. “I can no longer attend my monthly association meetings because he thinks I should be here working,” she said.

The executive had to drop the local Kiwanis Club membership to concentrate on work and is under fire to drop the nonprofit’s chamber membership because the chair believes one-and-a-half-hour lunch meetings “are a waste of time,” she said.

“This just looks silly because our organization has been awarded Business of the Year by the chamber,” the CEO said.

Boards need training. If they are dead-set against it, don’t take a job at that organization. When the nonprofit executive takes a new position, he or she needs to ask a question about the board and be ruthlessly honest in answering it: Does this board understand that its role is governance, or does it want to do my job?

There are many ways to provide the board with regular training that aren’t time-consuming:

  1. Slip the For Board Members section of B&A into their board meeting packets.
  2. Find low-cost or free webinars for the board to learn from.
  3. Ask your governance committee to survey the board on the topics it wants to learn about.
  4. Improve the quality of your nonprofit’s new board member orientation program.
Board Relationship
10/13/2017 12:00 AM

This executive director work plan from B&A can help the CEO focus his or her board on governance work.

At the end of each appraisal cycle, remind your board of how much work you plan to accomplish in the next year. List specific tasks you will accomplish that are based on the position standards in your job description, along with the work you will accomplish to meet or exceed the board’s goals.

Here are some ideas to consider in your annual work plan:

Board communication:

  • Provide a weekly Friday memo that reviews the workweek at the nonprofit and lays out some information board members need to be aware of in the coming week.

Board development:

  • Meet with all new board members to review expectations and roles, along with the organization’s key strategic initiatives.
  • Work with the governance or nominations committee to analyze the composition of the board, determine the board’s needs and assist with the recruitment of new trustees.
  • Introduce new board member candidates to the governance or nominations committee.
  • Provide a tour of the organization to all new board members.
  • Work with board leadership to plan a board and CEO retreat that provides continuing education to board members.
  • Provide fundraising training to the board.
  • Work on an executive director succession plan that provides the board with assurance that the agency has the staff necessary to seamlessly continue operations.

Board meetings:

  • Distribute monthly meeting agendas and meeting support materials one week before board meetings.
  • Provide a monthly board meeting report that provides service delivery data, budget status and stakeholder engagement activities.

Executive director board reports:

  • Continue advance distribution of monthly reports that provide relevant information on the current volume of services, budget execution/funding, community involvement and staff/volunteer development and activities.

Work on board approved-goals:

  • Provide monthly updates on operational plans.
  • Provide monthly updates on resource development initiatives: capital campaigns, grants, special events.
  • Work with executive committee on budget development.
  • Reduce amount of reserves committed to operations.
  • Provide the board with a clean audit.
  • Conclude capital campaign successfully.
Personnel Committee and Micromanagement
9/29/2017 12:00 AM

The board’s personnel committee needs a very clear job description or it will meddle, suggests B&A Editor Jeff Stratton in his From the Board Doctor feature.

A Board Issues Hotline (515.963.7972; caller from California had a lot on her mind, because the board’s personnel committee had started wandering around in the weeds of staff management: “Their first act was to request all staff salaries for the committee to review,” he said.

No board committee has as much potential to micromanage your job as a personnel committee. Much of the work personnel committee members think they should be doing is your responsibility.

If the board insists on forming or using a personnel committee, it needs a job description that clarifies and strictly limits the committee’s authority. Here are the five focused tasks The Board Doctor recommends for a personnel committee.

  1. Recommend the hiring of the nonprofit’s executive.
  2. Conduct an annual performance evaluation of the executive.
  3. Maintain familiarity with any laws and policies that regulate conditions of employment, and plans for their implementation.
  4. Approve and review personnel policies and procedures for the organization.
  5. Serve as the executive’s resource on personnel issues.

The board’s personnel committee job description needs to be reviewed with the committee and with the full board each year.

One more item to consider about personnel committees: Why even have one? True, the practice at many organizations is to have a personnel committee and use it to work on issues such as personnel policies. But that could just as easily be performed by a board member working as a volunteer to update your organization’s policies.

The governance activities, such as hiring the CEO and giving her an annual appraisal, can just as easily be bundled into a governance committee’s work, where they belong.

If the board takes this route and does away with its personnel committee, you face one less area of your responsibility where the board is likely to wander around in the weeds.


Jeff Stratton, Editor


3/10/2017 12:00 AM

This resource from Board & Administrator helps board members assess their engagement level with the organization.

2/24/2017 12:00 AM

In Brian Foss and the Horatio Alger Association’s book, Governing Effective Nonprofits in the 21st Century, board members can find a wealth of practical information about serving on a board.

Below, you’ll find a terrific job description for a nonprofit board member.

A Sample Board Member’s Job Description for Any Nonprofit

  • Understand and support the mission, programs and services of the organization.
  • Accept the responsibilities of being a fiduciary of a corporation that exists for the public good using tax-exempt, tax-deductible funds.
  • Make a multiyear commitment to participate actively in governance meetings and programs.
  • Be among the first, most generous and consistent annual donors.
  • Invite new people to become involved in the organization’s work and to contribute financially.
  • Assist other governance leaders in building relationships that will help the organization fulfill its mission.
  • Be a steward of the public trust and a trustee of the organization’s mission and resources.
  • Keep the board’s work focused on governance issues, policy creation and setting strategic directions for the organization’s future in a transparent and ethical manner.
  • Keep the board focused on effectiveness in fulfilling the mission and programs, and creating an organization that is best-in-class.
  • As a fiduciary, ensure that the organization is diversely funded, approve the annual budget and monitor fiscal affairs, conduct an audit annually, have fiscal controls in place, review IRS Form 990, and plan for the financial future of the corporation.
  • Ensure the board has policies in place regarding board and staff conflicts of interest, self-dealing and transparency.
  • Understand how the organization raises its funds and approve all of the fundraising practices and external contracts for fundraising.
  • Leave management matters to the organization’s CEO and help the board and staff continuously differentiate the roles of governance and management.
  • Be an advocate and ally for the CEO, assuming such support is merited. Participate in the hiring, nurturing and evaluation of the CEO.
  • Keep the board focused on the organization’s mission.


Source: Brian Foss, Governing Effective Nonprofits in the 21st Century. Reprinted with permission.

1/27/2017 12:00 AM

Use the following exercise from The Board Doctor to assess your board’s understanding of its role.

Use the following exercise to determine how clearly your board understands its role. Identify those areas where the board lacks either knowledge or information, and make plans to find them the training they need. Remember: An untrained board is a disaster (for the CEO) waiting to happen.


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  • Meet the Editor

    Jeff Stratton

    Jeff Stratton has edited Board & Administrator since 1992. As the Board Doctor, he has advised thousands of executive directors and board members on issues like prevention of
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