Looking Forward, Never Back: The Key to Board Progress

There’s a popular saying, “Don’t look back. We’re not going that way.” There’s a lesson in it for all of us who know and love human service agencies, arts organizations, school districts, Greek organizations, and others that fall under the big umbrella of nonprofits. However, it doesn’t mean that we ignore our history. It simply means that we must, in these challenging times, look forward to make board progress.

The most valuable characteristic of a nonprofit organization is adaptability. How can we adapt to make the changes we need in our own organization, adapt to the funding community priorities, adapt to the desires of our donors, and the people we serve? Additionally, how can we grow as leaders to meet the new challenges?

The key to board progress is to look forward. But is there also reason to look at the past? Nonprofit board governance expert Kim Donahue advises board leadership on how to strike a balance.


Not another assessment! Yes and no. If you haven’t had any kind of assessment of your effectiveness and operations, it may be time to look at how you’re doing. Luckily, there are lots of simple organizational assessments for nonprofits that can be accessed on the internet. It’s a good topic for a board retreat.

If you’re part of a national network or accrediting body, you already have that information. Use it to implement change. Solicit the experience of colleagues who may be ahead of you on the journey to move forward.


When was the last time your board and staff thought about what the organization could be in the future? Have a retreat where you create a clear vision of what the operations and service will look like in three to five years. It’s an exciting process that gives you a North Star to look toward.

“If you don’t know where you are going, you will end up somewhere else.”

That vision of the future can be the basis of your strategic planning and give energy to your board progress planning

Collaborations and Partnerships

Who are your allies? Are there like-minded organizations that you have developed a good relationship with through the years? Have some meaningful conversations with your friends. Are there opportunities to collaborate and work together on programs that will provide more value to your community? Obviously, strong collaborations have greater appeal to the funding community.

Who are the funders with whom you have the best relationships? Conversations with funders about their priorities over the next few years and how your organization fits into those priorities can be useful in looking forward. Interestingly, you may learn that the funders have many of the same ideas about the community that you do.


Younger donors are no longer satisfied with just writing a check and receiving a copy of the annual report. Fortunately, they want to be more involved in volunteer activities, events and committees.

How can you engage younger donors in the future to create loyalty to you? One great way to identify and engage these supporters is with a young professionals board. By involving budding philanthropists, you can secure the future of the nonprofit and your board progress for years to come.

The People We Serve

The people we serve may be clients needing case management, attendees at concerts, families in our school district, or members of sororities and fraternities. When was the last time you asked your clients what they need from you? Survey your clients. You may learn some important ways to look ahead to serving them better.

Professional Development for Board Progress

As board members and chief executives, it’s important to move forward in your own development too. Therefore, every board meeting should include some education for the board. It can be education about programs, about trends in your area of work, or about how to be a more effective board member.

Chief executives can look forward into the years ahead through seminars and peer groups. Seminars can help with streamlining the daily operations or learning more about financial forecasting. Peer groups help executives to cope with the isolation that accompanies the position. Therefore, being able to bring issues to a peer group that understands can be a valuable way to look forward.

Our history provides context. Our vision and ability to adapt in the future will build success. Too often we are trapped in the day-to-day. Look out into the future and take the next steps. Don’t look back because we are not going that way!

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