Does your board need a New Year boost?

4 Simple Ways to Build A Healthier Board This Year. 

January 2nd, 2018

Amielle DeWan, Hanna Lentz


As a nonprofit leader, the New Year probably has you planning personal aspirations as well as professional ones. Maybe you are hoping to protect more wild places? Save more animals? Or secure stronger environmental policies? As you and your teams rev up to tackle critical issues in the New Year, you want to set your organization up for success. Experts agree that one of the most important indicators of this success is having a healthy, high-functioning board (Jonker and Meehan 2014). So as you plan a better, stronger, and more impactful year ahead, a resolution to improve your nonprofit board may be just what you need.

What Board Improvements are Needed?

Healthy board culture and systems set up for strong governance are the backbone of an effective nonprofit board. These require elements relative to board roles and responsibilities, diversity, engagement, and accountability. For example:

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  • Does every board member understand what they should be doing and when? Is the difference between Executive/CEO and board-level decision-making clearly articulated, documented, and understood by all? If not, it is time to work on roles and responsibilities.
  • Does your board have a mix of individuals with different perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences? Are a variety of viewpoints valued and integrated? If not, you need greater board diversity.
  • Are board members passionate about animal and environmental issues while also dedicating the necessary time, capacity, and resources to supporting the organization? Do they regularly attend meetings, participate, and feel they are contributing in a meaningful way? If not, take a hard look at engagement.
  • Does the board provide clear expectations about what it means to serve? Are board members and the CEO responsible for their actions? If not, take a critical look at accountability.

How To Give Your Board a New Year Boost

If your nonprofit board needs help in one or more of the areas listed above, it is time to address board culture and ensure systems are set up for success.

Start at the next in-person board meeting by building time into the agenda to discuss and brainstorm the elements of your board’s culture.  Provide space and opportunity for board members to socialize, get to know each other’s strengths and passions, as well as their commitment to the organization’s mission. What you will have is a roadmap for creating a happier, healthier, and more effective board, and the foundation for tackling the New Year’s tips we highlight below. 



Established Roles and Responsibilities

Bylaws should outline the differing roles of the board and Executive leadership, but these can often be vague and confusing.  Clearly articulating roles and responsibilities helps mitigate unwanted conflicts in decision-making between Executive and the board, establishes work boundaries, and provides an overview for the expected contributions of new board members.

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  1. Review the existing documentation of roles and responsibilities with the board and identify any language that needs to be modified or clarified. 

  2. Ask the board to go through 1-2 real world scenarios of a decision-making process to test for consistency and consensus on the process.  Update formal documentation to include examples as needed, and share with new board members as part of the on-boarding process. 




Statistics indicate that most boards need to address diversity.  Right now, only 20% of nonprofit board members in the United States are people of color. But increasing board diversity is not just about racial and ethnic diversity.  Your board should also reflect a variety of socio-economic, gender, age, skillsets and industry backgrounds. Addressing board diversity ensures that your organization reflects the next generation of nonprofit leadership, and is better positioned to be truly innovative, creative, problem-solving, and high performing (Hunt et al. 2015).

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  1. Create a spreadsheet listing key qualifications and elements of diversity you would like to evaluate for representation and inclusion.  Consider where appropriate: professional background, additional interests or skills, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, geography, socio-economic status, and strengths needed for effective board operation (ie, strategy, finance, management, development, communications). 

  2. Given your current board, where are the greatest gaps that need to be filled?  Make any goals that you set around filling these gaps public to staff and the rest of the board, and reach out to new networks to fill open positions. 




Board members must engage directly and deeply in the substantive work of their organization (Jonker & Meehan 2014) while closely tracking both the successes and failures, annually.  Being an effective board member requires more than a love for animals and nature. When the board is engaged they are passionate but also committed to dedicating the necessary time, expertise, skills, and resources to an organization’s strategy and ultimately, its success.

  1. Review documentation of board culture and engagement.  Do board members have a deep sense of the organization’s mission and purpose?  Consider requiring members to volunteer their time or visit program projects at least once or twice every three years.  

  2. If engagement and enthusiasm are low, survey your board to determine the barriers to engagement. Explore how meetings are run and conducted, to see how you can ensure that they focus on critical issues, at the right level of detail, while encouraging participation.

  3. Alternatively, consider recruiting new members who may have more time and energy to contribute. 




Although it is common on nonprofit boards to have individuals who are more or less engaged, individuals who do not meet reasonable benchmarks or who behave disrespectfully can deeply influence the culture and functioning of a board.  A lack of accountability can quickly erode overall board culture, and efforts to improve roles and responsibilities, engagement, and diversity.

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  1. Review any board documents that set the foundation for culture, roles and responsibilities, engagement, and diversity.  Are your board members in agreement about what is currently documented?  If not, take time at the next board meeting to review these documents and brainstorm ideas for how to hold each other accountable for these practices. 

  2. Consider creating Board Leadership Plans, where individual members briefly articulate how they want to achieve their engagement, board culture, and responsibility goals for their next term.  Review plans annually or bi-annually to make modifications, new commitments, or to celebrate successes.

  3. Ensure there are the right metrics in place for the board to review annually.  This includes Key Performance Indicators that document the health of financial, operational, and programmatic functions. The board can then provide appropriate guidance on organizational weaknesses and strengths, with guidance and course-correction as needed. 

New Year, Better Board

At its worst, a weak board can undermine the success of an organization, but at its best a strong board will help your organization soar. With so much on the line, there is no time like the New Year to make a few changes that can help your board, and your organization, succeed.

If you have any questions about how to implement these tips please feel free to contact us.  We’d also love to hear if you give these tips a try and how they work for you!