Ensuring Mission-Driven Board Leadership

After working with dozens of nonprofit organizations — both on the inside and the outside — I have found that, regardless of the size or scope of the organization, board members do not fully appreciate the strategic importance of their governance role.

It’s not an easy topic to talk about. After all, many nonprofit board members are well-established leaders in their communities, and they are confident that they understand their role on the board and fulfill it dutifully.

Ultimately it comes down to a simple question: “Is the board acting in the best interest of the organization’s mission or simply administrating its activities?” If the answer is the latter, it’s time to re-educate the board.

This is most evident in times of leadership change. A proactive, mission-focused board will build succession planning into their strategic process. Not surprisingly, many organizations have not focused on succession planning or talent management, so the departure of the chief executive leaves the board without a rudder or an in-depth understanding of the organization’s leadership challenges or its mission. Too often, it becomes a time of great anxiety, which often short-circuits attention to dealing effectively with change.

If an organization is well prepared for a transition and handles it capably, then a transition can be a time of growth and opportunity. I suggest that when organizations engage in strategic planning, they incorporate succession planning. This includes a plan for the cultivation of emerging leadership, so there is a pool of talent to fill key positions, as well as a comprehensive strategic planning process to increase the board’s understanding of the organization’s strengths, challenges, performance expectations, and key initiatives. To be dynamic, the planning process must be re-visited every three years, and board involvement and commitment is critical.

The good news is that many boards possess the skill sets to govern effectively, but it often seems they leave those skills at the door. Board members don’t invest enough time or energy into understanding the nonprofit. Too often, I’ve found that the focus of business leaders and lawyers, in their board roles, is on keeping administrative costs and enterprising risks low, without consideration of what it takes to ensure program quality and impact. They often do not understand how the mission is realized or how its impact is assessed. Ironically, they would never consider running their own businesses without the necessary resources or talent just to keep overhead low.

These same for-profit leaders might use their board roles to promote a greater investment in capacity building, succession planning, and performance measurements, rather than minimizing risk and administrative costs. Without adequate training on their role as a nonprofit board member, they miss creating the alignment of the mission with an understanding of the talent and resources needed for success and sustainability. We propose that the stewards of mission-driven organizations should be adequately trained in the implications of their governance roles, before assuming the mantle of board member.

The key to a mission-driven board isn’t magic, it’s vision — the kind of vision that can see the potential in a group and realize it through education. Board members want to make the most of their contribution, so it’s up to a group’s leaders to find ways to educate their board about the mission of the nonprofit and the role the board plays in achieving it.

Together, nonprofit leaders and board members can make their organizations stronger and more productive. And that helps the whole community.