Optimize non-profit board performance.  Set realistic expectations.

Non-profit board members are time-constrained volunteers and may have differing perceptions of their roles. To make boards effective and nonprofits successful, set realistic expectations of nonprofit board members.

“An aquarium of dead fish.” “Lacking diversity.”  “Rubber stamps.” “Ineffective.” “Lawless governance.”

These are some descriptions of non-profit boards that I have read in several articles and studies that conclude that there is much room for improvement in the functioning of non-profit organizations

Having served on several boards and as a CEO of a non-profit, I can understand why.

CEOs and board members face significant challenges, which when not identified and managed properly, adversely impact the functioning of the board. 

CEOs of non-profits, constantly challenged by resource constraints, turn to board members to find or supplement the expertise gaps in the organization.  Well-intentioned board members are challenged to find the best ways to support the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission, while carrying out their core board responsibilities of governance.

These challenges can be surmounted if realistic expectations are set on who and how the needs of the non-profit will be met.  The first step to do this is to understand the constraints and perspectives of non-profit board members.

Constraints and perspectives of non-profit board members
  • Volunteers with limited time

Most board members work full-time and have other personal and business commitments.  They are time constrained, making it difficult to find the time to deeply understand and follow the issues related to the work of the non-profit. 

  • For-profit mindset

There is the tendency for board members who have worked only in the for-profit sector to focus solely on financial performance and fund raising to measure the organization’s success.  In the non-profit sector, the quality and quantity of services are just as important as are financial results.  

  • Personal agendas

Board members are usually recruited for their expertise and business connections, which are considered beneficial to the organization.  In addition to offering their expertise and leveraging their connections, there are board members whose actions clearly indicate that they are motivated to join board to fulfil personal objectives and agendas (e.g. enhance their professional experience, raise their visibility in the community). 

  • Perceptions of their role

Some board members regard verbal advice and participation in debates at board meetings as their way of supporting the organization.  There are others who are eager to offer their expertise and then become overly involved in the day-to-day operations.  Both approaches can be detrimental to the organization and more importantly, they are not the main roles of board membership.  

Although not an exhaustive list, the combination or dominance of some or all the above mentioned constraints and perspectives often results in board dysfunction and poor governance, adversely impacting the non-profit’s ability to fulfill its mission.  

Setting expectations

The primary purpose of a board of directors is to ensure good governance, so that the organization fulfills its mission.  Good governance requires the on-going assessment of outcomes against objectives that have been agreed on and approved by the board.  The agreed objectives are likely to be achieved if they are aligned with the resources at the disposal of the organization through its board, its CEO and staff. 

Having assessed the resource constraints, the next step is to establish realistic expectations on how board members will support the organization. 

Here are three critical areas in which realistic expectations should be set for board members.   

  1. Contribution – agreed level of support that is relevant to the organization’s mission
  2. Capacity – the optimal use of time commitments
  3. Compatibility – how each board member will work with other board members & the CEO
  1. Contribution

As in any well-run for-profit organization, non-profit CEOs must secure the board’s approval of the organization’s vision and mission, and the strategic plans.  CEOs must also let their board chairs know in very clear terms, the expertise and resources needed to ensure the successful implementation of the plans.  They need to take a long-term view of the expertise required to meet current needs as well as the expertise that will take the organization into the future. 

When recruiting board members, board chairs must clearly outline the contribution that is expected from each board member within their term of office. 

Assigning each board member to an advisory committee comprised of board members and non-board members, including the non-profit’s staff is a good way to formalize the contribution of board members’ expertise and to avoid board members feeling underused and disengaged.  Advisory committees also provide non-profits with a pool of potential candidates for future board seats.

To be effective and accountable, advisory committees must have clearly defined mandates and reporting protocols.  To ensure that the organization has access to expertise that is relevant and forward-looking, term limits for board members must be set and enforced.  Term limits give the organization the opportunity to regularly recruit persons with updated perspectives and expertise.

2. Capacity

Non-profit board members are volunteers and must juggle their commitment to the non-profit with other obligations.  The remuneration they receive for fulfilling their other business and professional commitments makes sacrificing their time to do pro-bono work less attractive.  This is true for even the most well-intentioned board member.

Time constraints and the relatively long gaps between board meetings can make it difficult for board members to follow, recall, and deeply understand the activities of the non-profit organization.  They are expected to make comments and decisions on issues presented in documents provided to them a few days prior to board meetings.  Furthermore, meetings are held outside of regular business hours when board members and less likely to be fully prepared and able to give their undivided attention. 

The solution is to provide key information that is essential for decision-making at board meetings.  To do this, the CEO and board chair must work together to prepare the board meeting agenda, which should allot adequate time to address and resolve no more than two or three critical issues at each meeting.  This is in addition to the recurring agenda items.  The critical issues and recommendations should be presented by the board representative of the relevant advisory committee. 

3. Compatibility

The way the board members work together is likely to be quite different from a team of remunerated colleagues.  Non-profit board members are a group of volunteers who spend very limited time working together and getting to know each other.  Personal agendas and differing perceptions of their roles are elements that can disrupt cohesion and efficiency in the way the board works together. 

In addition to having each board member participate in an advisory committee and holding board retreats that encourage collaboration among board members, the board chair and CEO must find ways to leverage the motivations, needs and personal agendas of board members that support collaboration among board members and that benefit the organization.

An example of a possible way to do this is to assign a board member who wants to showcase their expertise to lead a committee that is mandated to oversee the delivery of a high-profile project.  The board member is required to regularly provide progress reports to the board, while at the same time can use their expertise in a way that satisfies their need to be seen as an expert within the organization and in the community. 

When expectations have been set, board members must be held accountable. 

Once the expectations have been set, board members should be held accountable for their commitments. This can be done through a formal process and forum for regular feedback from board members and performance reviews of board member contributions.  The board chair, the board member responsible for governance and the CEO should lead this process at least twice annually. In this way, board members become more engaged, the board is more effective, and the organization fulfills its mission to benefit the community.   

See the BIG picture. Focus on what’s important.



Published by Camille Isaacs-Morell

Enabling businesses and people to be successful. This is my mission, my life’s work. It’s always been what I have done wherever I’ve been employed, called to serve or to volunteer. An experienced business leader, my core values are truth, integrity, and respect. I believe that values-based leadership is critical for organizational success that is enabled by an engaged and empowered workforce. Working over the years in several senior marketing, communications, and executive leadership mandates for global, financial, healthcare, and non-profit organizations, it has been through times of transformation and difficult change that I have done my best work. In my blog posts, I share my perspectives on leadership, marketing and strategy that are based on my key learnings and observations over the years, all with the objective of helping others reach for success. In my spare time, I enjoy the beauty of nature which I reproduce in my pastel paintings.

%d bloggers like this: