From Better Boards

Courage and Discipline for Board Members

When do board members need to show courage?

When do board members need to exercise discipline?

I posed those questions to the board members, executive directors and aspiring board members who participated in my recent workshop, What to know to be the board member you hope to be.

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Gail Randall, Special Projects Officer at the Greater Worcester Community Foundation, thanking Gayle for her workshop “What to know to be the board member you hope to be” hosted by Bowditch & Dewey.

I don’t think we use these two words enough when we recruit and train board members. I think this is so important that I devoted the final chapter in my book, How to Make Your Board Dramatically More Effective, to the topic of Courage. And I talk about discipline  throughout.

Here are a few examples that workshop participants raised:


  • To prepare
  • To observe appropriate board/staff boundaries
  • To stop board discussions that stray into staff work or staff decisions
  • To make painful decisions
  • To keep your focus
  • To honor your values in the face of great monetary temptation


  • To ask the tough questions
  • To ask your first question as a newbie board member
  • To be the lone voice of dissent (collegially, of course)
  • To jump into fundraising, or advocacy, or whatever you are shy about
  • To know when your CEO needs to move on
  • To take that risk that is the right one to make
  • To say no to a gift that isn’t right for your organization

I invite you to add to this list. When have you seen courage and discipline demonstrated on your board?

Other reading:

It takes courage

Strategic planning, common sense and courage


Wayfinding – the ongoing work of your nonprofit board

IMG_2227If you look up wayfinding, on Wikipedia you’ll find this:

“Historically, wayfinding refers to the techniques used by travelers … to find relatively unmarked and often mislabeled routes.”

How apt to describe our sector’s search for the perfect board.

Pop “nonprofit boards” into Google Books and it will count 193,000 entries!

And of course there are blogs and articles too many to count offering advice on the role and structure of the nonprofit board – this one included.

So, there must be a definitive source, no?

Curious, I wondered what “the law” says about boards.

As nonprofit enterprises are first created in their states, I turned to state law for some insight.

From the General Laws of my home state of RI:

“Board of directors” means the group of persons vested with the management of the affairs of the corporation (including, without being limited to, a board of trustees) regardless of the name by which the group is designated. (emphasis added)

In California, the statute for the boards of nonprofit corporations reads:

the activities and affairs of a corporation shall be conducted and all corporate powers shall be exercised by or under the direction of the board. The board may delegate the management of the activities of the corporation to any person or persons, management company, or committee however composed, provided that the activities and affairs of the corporation shall be managed and all corporate powers shall be exercised under the ultimate direction of the board. (emphasis added).

The laws of your state provide some instruction on how nonprofits boards should be structured to carry out their duties — number of directors, required officers, rules for elections, quorums, etc. But these are usually a minimum or default that you can adjust to fit your needs. State law also sets out requirements for certain ways of acting, e.g. duty of care, duty of loyalty, no self dealing, use of electronics in meetings, etc.

But what actually does “management of the affairs of the corporation” mean? Read more

A shining example of a nonprofit values statement

NBS SignsA values statement allows a nonprofit to define and codify the shared beliefs that underlie its work. You don’t have to be a church, synagogue or mosque to benefit from a moral code.

Your values statement keeps board and staff moving in the same direction — and away from danger. Imagine the fallout if an environmental group was fined for polluting. The media would crucify an organization that served individuals with disabilities if its annual meeting wasn’t wheelchair accessible.

In developing a values statement, you’ll need to identify your bedrock beliefs. What are you are unwilling to compromise, regardless of the  promise of more money or greater convenience?

You may uncover differences of opinion on what you thought were shared beliefs as you Read more

New Year’s resolutions for nonprofit boards – Five things to STOP

IMG_20141231_144159Happy New Year!!


May 2015 bring you joy, peace and prosperity.

And amazingly fabulous times for your nonprofit!!

Yesterday I shared the first five of my 10 resolutions for nonprofit boards  – Five Things to START Doing. Today’s post, Five Things to STOP, are the top five mistakes that make me crazy about the way we work with our boards.


1. Describing your board as “dysfunctional.

Cognitive scientists tell us that “expectation shapes reality.” If you carry around a mental model of board failure, you will have a difficult time seeing individual board member strengths and how your board functions pretty well. Most boards I’ve encountered are working at a level of  acceptable to good. Read more

10 New Year’s resolutions for nonprofit boards – Five things to START doing

Bell ringersAlmost Happy 2015!!  I hope you are ringing in the New Year tonight with loving family or good friends.

January 1st, brings the annual time for resolutions.

Here in New England USA, we’re bracing for the coming of deep winter’s cold and snowy weather.

But lengthening days are a reminder that Spring is just round the corner. My resolutions touch on the darkness and the rebirth of your board’s great potential.

Between my post today and tomorrow, I’ll share 10 resolutions that will help make your board more effective and board work more satisfying.

Today, Five Things To Start Doing.

1. Be intentional about your board practices.

Great boards don’t just happen: they come about through ongoing attention to the effectiveness of board structures, recruitment and action. Try developing a shared vision of how your board can add real value to your organization – then work hard to carry that out. Read more

What makes an effective board chair?

IMG_2577Being an effective board chair is hard to measure as board effectiveness is often in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, we can learn from our peers on how they perceive effectiveness in chairs.

Yvonne Harrison, Assistant Professor of Public Management at the University of Albany, SUNY, has been conducting research on board chair effectiveness and other governance issues. Here are some findings from a four phase study which included interviews and surveys carried out between 2006 and 2009.

Board chairs who were perceived as effective were seen as :

  • Team leaders who were open to ideas, cultivated collaboration, created a safe space for discussion, respectful,  provided autonomy and independence and made their colleagues feel like they were a valued member of the team.
  • Skilled at interpersonal relations and capable of developing high quality relationships with their team.
  • Emotionally and “spiritually” intelligent which included being socially and self-aware, humble, honest, helpful and altruistic in their behavior.

If you are a board chair, how do you match up? And if you are recruiting or grooming you next chair, Professor Harrison recommends that you choose leaders who demonstrate these qualities.

You can read more about this research in Nonprofit Governance: Innovative Perspectives and Approaches, edited by Chris Cornforth and William A. Brown.


Fiduciary responsibility? Questions every nonprofit board should ask

AR garden 2008 (2)What financial questions your board should ask?

For years I’ve been looking for a practical, easy to understand book on nonprofit finances to recommend to nonprofit boards and to use in the graduate class I teach at Brown University. Well, thank you to Andy Robinson and Nancy Wasserman for writing The Board Member’s Easier Than You Think Guide to Nonprofit Finances.

Too many boards leave oversight of organizational finances up to one or two people. So I asked Andy if he’d share his thoughts with you on what a board needs to know about its organization’s finances

By Andy Robinson

We can debate all the dimensions of board leadership – strategic planning, program oversight, serving as ambassadors on behalf of your organization, and so on – but one essential aspect is written into the law governing nonprofit organizations: fiduciary responsibility.

These are big words, and they don’t mean simply approving a budget or signing off on an audit. In the deepest sense, accepting fiduciary responsibility means integrating financial thinking into every aspect of board governance. If you don’t know the financial information by heart – if you’re not marinated in the numbers and understand why they’re important – it’s impossible to exercise that responsibility.

Consider the follow quiz questions. Could your board members answer these without flipping through a pile of paper?

  • What is your organization’s annual budget?
  • What are your current sources of income – and what would be the best mix of income for your organization?
  • What are your largest expenses? What percentage of the budget do they consume?
  • Does your organization have a reserve fund? How much is in it, and under what circumstances can it be used?
  • What is your biggest financial risk?
  • How do you use financial management tools to measure your impact? Does your organization compute the cost per unit of service: for example, for each client you help, or audience member you entertain, or acre you protect?
  • What would help you better understand your organization’s financial situation?

If each of your board members can answer these questions with confidence and clarity, congratulations. If not, develop a training program to increase their financial literacy. The quiz questions above would be a great way to begin the training.

– –

You can’t go wrong with any of Andy’s many books, especially his newest Train your board (and everyone else) to raise money. (You’ll find an exercise from yours truly on the last page of this practical  workbook). Learn more about Andy at and

And while you are trolling the Emerson and Church website for Andy’s finance book, I hope you’ll also order a copy of my book How to Make Your Board Dramatically More Effective, Starting Today. 🙂

15 questions nonprofit boards need to answer

Board work can feel so complicated. Or unclear. In my book, Make your board dramatically more effective, starting today,  and in my blog posts, I try to simplify this work whenever I can.

In my last post, Three Goals of Nonprofit Boards, I shared three goals that I feel are essential for all boards:

  1. Community betterment
  2. Wise stewardship
  3. Excellent Board Practice

Today I’m sharing 15 questions nonprofit boards need to answer to move toward achieving those goals -five for each goal. (I’m cheating a bit, some of the questions are multiples).

Community Betterment Questions

  • Who are we accountable to and how do we demonstrate our accountability?
  • What do we know about our community and its needs?
  • What are the results we are willing to commit to? By when? At what cost?
  • What do we believe will make the change we want to see [theory of change] and how will we go about achieving it?
  • How do we know that we are accomplishing  what we set out to achieve?

Wise Stewardship Questions

  • What capacity, resources, skills and knowledge do we need to achieve our desired results?
  • How much will this cost and how will we fund it?
  • What does health look like for our organization?
  • Are there other ways to structure our organization that also increases the effectiveness of our community to achieve its mission?
  • Do we have the leadership we need?

Excellent Board Practice Questions

  • What values are we unwilling to compromise?
  • How does this board add value to this organization -what are we responsible for as a group and as individuals?
  • What skills, knowledge, attributes and competencies do we need in the board and its leadership and who has it?
  • How will we make decisions and structure our work?
  • How do we know that we are accomplishing what we set out to achieve?

What questions is your board asking itself? I’d love to share them with my readers?

You can find this in a condensed version here The Work of a Nonprofit Board

Three goals of nonprofit boards

What’s the point of a nonprofit board? Here are three goals of nonprofit boards that I consider essential:

1. Achieving the mission = Community Betterment

Success is to make a significant difference for your “community” and/or clients

2. Ensuring wise stewardship and organizational health

Success is to build an adaptable and resilient organization, capable of achieving its objectives now and into the future while ensuring that resources are carefully stewarded.

3. Intentional board practice

Success is to identify and practice excellent governance, delivering on your commitments with integrity, respect, social responsibility, transparency, competence and ethical behavior.

In my next post, I’ll share five questions for each goal for your board to work on answering.  For a preview, check out

The Work of a Nonprofit Board

How do you define the work of a nonprofit board?

Lack passionate recruits for your board? Create them.

VP photoOne of the axioms of board recruitment is that you should only recruit onto your board those people who are already passionate about your organization. You’ve probably even heard me say that.

In my chapter in the Essential Fundraising Handbook for Small Nonprofits, I explain the benefits of having passionate members on your board.

But what if you are in an organization that lacks passionate recruits for your board. Maybe you don’t have a natural constituency. Maybe you are relatively new. Perhaps your mission is not easily explained.

The road to passion might just be serving on your board of directors.

Here’s an example. Read more