Nonprofit Leader Essentials

Throughout the United States there are well over one million registered nonprofit and charitable organizations.

Each of these organizations vary by their cause, size, budget, location and outreach. However, they share one key similarity: their reliance upon a strong board of directors to launch their mission fulfillment into maximum overdrive. For every nonprofit organization, there are heart-warming and inspirational stories that demonstrate the life changing difference that can be made by the unfolding of their unique cause.

Perhaps you are tempted to question the true importance of a strong board if your organization has an exceptional executive director. That is simply not true. I’ve seen this play out too many times throughout my career as a consultant and non-profit board member. There is an undeniable difference in overall impact and outreach between organizations with a solid executive director/board partnership, versus those with a rubber stamp board who are excessively reliant upon an overstretched executive director.

Unlike for-profit boards, nonprofit board members do not receive financial compensation for their involvement, yet they’re still relied upon to play the crucial role of overseeing their organization. They must regularly make decisions to ensure effective planning and optimal use of limited financial resources. They’re relied upon to establish, fulfill and communicate the mission, while adhering to legal and ethical standards. The board also supports and evaluates the executive director’s performance with the goals of the organization in mind. Board members must also ensure governance and contribute to the bottom line through donations or fund raising. When we sprinkle into this, the reality that nearly all boards are made up of people with different motivations, coming from diverse walks of life and careers, the potential for weak collective board leadership is hard to ignore.

So, what are the essential difference makers needed for a nonprofit board to go from ordinary to extraordinary? Let’s take a look.

Essential No. 1: Each board member must share a true passion for the cause and mission. Although every member’s initial motivation for joining the board may differ, a genuine desire to raise awareness of the cause and drive the mission forward is a must. Do not settle for members who are more concerned with their own personal agenda. Why? Because passionate board members will not be content with letting the organization go stagnate. They will make important decisions with serious consideration, and infect others with their passion to get involved or give to the cause.

Essential No. 2: Every board member must have a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities. One of the most basic stumbling blocks of leadership in any organization is lack of clarity surrounding who is responsible for what. Fortunately, this is easy to prevent with some basic planning. Every board member should go through an orientation; otherwise they are being set up for failure. Sadly, many boards assume new members will pick everything up on the fly, which leads to a waste of resources, frustration and lack of focus. Some fundamentals to include in a board member orientation include defining their role; explaining organizational operations; board bylaws; a snapshot of who is who; sharing of vision, mission, and values; a warm welcome leaving them feeling valued and appreciated.

Essential No. 3: Each meeting must have a well planned (and followed) agenda that is distributed before meeting day. Without a well thought out agenda, your meeting will be filled with wasted time brought forth by butting heads, personal agendas, and rehashing of what was already discussed at last month’s meeting. It is important to remember that every board is filled with diverse people wanting different things. Therefore, it is important to provide a unified focus with an agenda that moves things forward, has time allocations for each discussion topic, and clearly notates decisions that must be made as a result of a vote.

Starting and ending meetings on time is also a key factor in keeping board members engaged and focused.

Essential No. 4: Board performance must be measured. One of my favorite sayings is this – “What doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done.” Nothing could be truer for a board of directors. The best way to ensure a board is on track and doing its job in accordance with the mission and bylaws is to track the fulfillment of responsibilities and achievement of board goals. It is important for the board to assign specific goals to each board member with specific deadlines for shared project updates and completion. As a board, do an honest annual assessment of how effectively board members are performing their roles. Take a look at how organized and frequently the meetings are taking place. What is the output from each board committee? How well is the board interacting with each other, the executive director, and the staff?

Hopefully, this is helpful in serving as a guide to reenergize your board. It all starts with an honest look in the mirror, and a desire to improve for the greater good of those who rely upon you to serve.

Elizabeth P. Cipolla SPHR, SHRM-SCP is a leadership communications professional specializing in the areas of leadership training, creative recruitment strategies, employment branding, professional development and executive coaching for nearly 20 years. Her leadership experience comes from various industries including marketing, mass media, apparel, education, manufacturing, aerospace, nonprofit agencies and insurance. To contact Elizabeth, email her at