Author: Peter Cantelon, Executive Director
How important are boards to the average non-profit?
I have been involved in many non-profit organizations and invariably someone asks this question, usually out of frustration.
“I mean, why do we need a board?” the person wonders aloud. “They don’t do anything and usually obstruct all of our good ideas…” and it goes on.
While the questions are often honest reflections in frustrating times, they also often rise up out of ignorance and a lack of understanding of why boards and governance are important in the non-profit world.
For one thing the entirety of an incorporated non-profit is based on a particular structure whose entire foundation are members.
Members are the “owners” of a non-profit. Ideally members elect board members to make decisions on their behalf. Board members manage the non-profit often by hiring an executive director. The executive director is an employee of the board communicating with the board chair or president.
In a healthy non-profit a board establishes the vision and strategy and the executive director and staff develop operational/business plans out of this strategy to move the vision forward in practical ways.
In my experience, when a non-profit is struggling with some sort of endemic, long term problem, the responsibility rests on the board of directors. The board, empowered by members, is the head of the organization with the power to deal with virtually any circumstance.
While a board should not be involved in operational concerns, they have the responsibility to ensure operational harmony by managing the executive director, and when appropriate, dismissing the director if operational concerns are not being resolved over time.
Often dissatisfaction arises when staff and members do not see the board working appropriately. This can stem from a board made up of members with little or no experience and no training in their roles.
Typically, it is the responsibility of a nominating committee to find and suggest board members for election. A good nominating committee will not simply be looking for people to fill seats but rather solid, experienced and qualified directors who bring value to the table in the form of expertise.
Board members with financial expertise such as a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) can be invaluable when it comes to understanding, guiding and interpreting financials for the organization. Other professionals such as lawyers, medical professionals etc. also can add value not to mention people who are simply passionate about the vision of the organization.
A healthy, knowledgeable board is invaluable to a non-profit’s success. They ensure the organization stays on task and avoids creeping too far from the core vision. A healthy board holds staff, through the executive director, accountable. This brings me to my final point – who holds the board accountable.
The ultimate attribute of a healthy, board run, non-profit is a strong and vibrant membership. It is members who drive and direct the enterprise through their election of board members. It is membership that holds a board accountable.
If your organization stymies membership to the point where it is anemic and small you can be sure trouble is on the horizon.
Sometimes we don’t enjoy being held accountable but an organization that stands to test of time is one that knows accountability through a healthy membership and board is the key to success and longevity.