Nonprofit Board Leadership: How To Empower Your Board

Nonprofit Board Leadership Guide

The nonprofit world relies on the dedication and ingenuity of its board members to meet its goals. As a board leader, it’s your job to ensure your organization does more than just meet goals. You need to spark and maintain excitement, drive engagement, and boost productivity.

Here are some of the points to consider in your nonprofit board leadership exploration:

Not sure if board leadership should be a top priority? Many reports, such as the “The Wake Up Call: A Study of Nonprofit Leadership in the U.S. and Its Impending Crisis,” suggest that the nonprofit sector is unprepared for future leadership.

The Wake-Up Call - Nonprofit Leadership Study Report

  • 78% of nonprofit organizations do not have a formal succession plan in place.
  • 67% of nonprofit leaders plan to leave their position in the next 5 years.

— “The Wake Up Call

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Who puts "leader" in nonprofit board leadership?

Who puts the “leader” in nonprofit board leadership?

When it comes to nonprofit board leadership, there are two key roles that might sound interchangeable,. In reality, they are actually quite different and unique. Most importantly, both of these roles are critical to the long-term success of a nonprofit organization. Here, we’ll take a look at the roles of board chair and executive director to point out three key differences between the two. We’ll also look at actionable steps for setting these roles up for success.

People are the most important aspect of good nonprofit board leadership.

The Board Chair

A board chair is the leader of a nonprofit’s board of directors. Because a board makes high-level strategic decisions for the nonprofit itself, the board chair is mainly focused on helping a nonprofit achieve its long-term. mission. One of the main differences between the role of board chair and executive director is the scale of their work. The board chair and the nonprofit board determine the overarching scope, goals, and strategic direction of a nonprofit. They are NOT generally involved in the day-to-day work of the nonprofit.

A second difference in these roles is that while the executive director may serve for years or decades, the board chair does not. Board chairs (and nonprofit board members in general) are often part of a nonprofit organization for only a few years. In fact, it is a best practice of nonprofit boards to bring in new people on a rotating basis to ensure that strategic decisions stay modern. This is why most board chairs are subject matter experts in their own right. 

The last significant part of the board chair is their fiduciary responsibility. Legally, all board members, especially a board chair, accept responsibility for the financial dealings of a nonprofit. This includes all inbound and outbound transactions including donations, large gifts, and employee payroll. Before agreeing to the role of board chair, individuals should understand the very real responsibility inherent in the position.

The Executive Director

Unlike board chairs, an executive director is responsible for managing the operational side of a nonprofit organization. The executive director handles all of the day-to-day initiatives of an organization and works directly with employees, volunteers, and other teams to fulfill the mission of a nonprofit. Starting with the guidance and vision of the board, the executive director works with the people on the ground to turn these high-level goals into results.

While the board chair may change every few years, offering specific knowledge in certain areas, executive directors can be in this role for years and can become highly skilled at working with  board chairs and members. Many times, executive directors become a key resource for nonprofit boards to find and appoint new board chairs. Therefore, these two forms of board leadership are symbiotic in this sense.  

The final major difference referenced earlier is the legal responsibility of the executive director. The executive director manages many transactions such as large donations and payroll, and is responsible for finding and attracting new donations and gifts. However, he or she is not legally responsible in any way.

Key Takeaways

Understandably, some responsibilities of a board chair and executive director do overlap, which is why clearly defining each role is key. And, most importantly, a board leadership must be in complete alignment over mission, strategy, and direction for a nonprofit to ensure everyone is working toward the same goals. By maintaining regular communication outside of meetings, annual performance checks between the two leaders, and trust built during meetings, these two roles can partner to make the organization as strong as possible.

Which comes first, success or confidence?

What comes first, confident or successful board leadership?

In sports, you sometimes live the question, “What comes first, confidence or winning?” The question really asks, can you achieve confidence without winning first? And if you can achieve confidence first, then how?

The answer is simple: We achieve the confidence to win through proper training. Putting that answer into practice, though, is not as simple. That’s a big reason why we don’t see success with many leaders today. They do not have a proper, ongoing training program that sets them up for success and builds confident leadership.

After all, there is often too much change happening too quickly all around nonprofits. Changes in tax law, for instance, can throw a fundraising plan into a tailspin. Executive directors and board members alike must continually develop themselves so they confidently lead through uncertain times.

Lay the foundation for confident leadership

No sports team would think they could win a game without practicing, having a schedule, or developing a game plan. Yet, many nonprofit boards fail to create such a plan for executive directors and other staff leadership. It works the other way, too. Board members need help from the organization to realize his or her own potential as leaders.

Imagine success in the biggest goals your nonprofit has set. In order to achieve them, your organization and board must realize they depend on each other. From that place of mutual respect, they have to lay a foundation that develops confident leadership in both groups.

That means asking each other frank questions:

  • How confident do staff and board members feel as leaders?
  • Do staff and board members deliver what each other needs to be successful leaders?
  • Do we have a plan for developing and assessing leadership performance?
  • Are there any leadership training programs currently in place?
  • If so, how effective are they? If not, how do we prioritize them?
  • Do we have a succession plan created with and approved by the board?

Answering these questions and coming up with solid plans won’t happen by accident. It requires intention, patience, and hard work. How do we get started?

Prioritize leadership development and assessment

You wouldn’t send your sports team out onto the field with no plan or assigned positions. Likewise, we can’t expect executive directors to attain confident leadership without the proper training, practice, and goal-setting skills.

Apply this thinking to your nonprofit. Boards have a huge opportunity here to positively impact their organizations, and they have more options than they probably realize. They can do annual assessments of leadership against the current strategic plan, send out donor satisfaction surveys, prepare and review monthly dashboards, and more.

It's crucial to have the right training and preparation for nonprofit board leadership success.

As for executive directors, they can spur change in leadership development by engaging their boards intelligently. A survey of the current board can show if members’ needs are being met. Such a gesture might reveal that it’’s the board in greater need of leadership development, and perhaps some kind of team-building retreat should be prioritized.

Be clear in goals and expectations

Last, both sides need to clearly define leadership goals so everyone understands what is expected of them. Having an annual plan buttressed by weekly or monthly check-ins to monitor key performance indicators, for instance, can give everyone a road map of where the organization is headed.

That would give you a clear (or at least clearer) framework to guide any leadership development initiatives. By taking this approach, you can be confident that you’re creating a path to success, and you will see greater productivity and meaningful expertise emerge for your organization.

Trust the process

Success doesn’t ever happen overnight, but everyone knows a story of a sports team that went from sloppy to champions. What’s the key? Having a process in place that will lead to continuous improvement. Build your training systems, and watch the people of your organization reach new levels of confidence in their leadership abilities. Provide opportunities for all board members to develop leadership capabilities, so that you’re prepared for any leadership role need.

Nonprofit board leadership best practices

What are some board leadership discussion best practices?

Are your board leaders and members uncomfortable with an issue that must be addressed? A real issue causes everyone in the group to experience high levels of anxiety even when thinking about the issue, much less talking about it. Luckily, your organization can move forward from even the most sticky topics with these pointers.

Have the hard discussions

Are there long silences at the meeting where board members stare at their shoes rather than talk about the issue? Do board members lean heavily on the board leadership to make decisions? Are members exhibiting avoidance behaviors? What about conversations that should have happened in the board room taking place in the parking lot after meetings? Everybody in the group knows what isn’t being talked about. Furthermore, everybody in the group conspires to make sure it doesn’t get talked about. Board leadership must step in.

Before starting tough conversations, remember these tips:

  • Set some “rules of engagement” before you have a tough issue. Discuss how you’re going to handle difficult problems.
  • Decide that someone, anyone in the group, can bring up an issue and ask: “What are we afraid to talk about?” Agree that as a group you will talk about what is making you uncomfortable.
  • If you are the board leader or chief executive, refuse to take sole responsibility for solving the problem.

Encourage board leadership networking

If your board is looking to become more strategic or effective in a certain area such as fundraising or volunteer recruiting, finding real-world subject matter experts to bring on board or ask for advice can be extremely helpful. For nonprofit board leadership, networking with other board chairs or connecting with a mentor can be helpful. Sometimes all it takes is another perspective or new advice to get the creative juices flowing for board leaders.

To achieve nonprofit board leadership success, you must have easily measured goals.

Set kpis and proactively measure goals

If a board is lacking a strategic direction or focus, this could be because there aren’t any clear goals to keep them on a straight path. While board chairs don’t necessarily have to dictate the goals and KPIs of a nonprofit board, they are in charge of enforcing goals in the long term. Creating clearly defined goals and being transparent with nonprofit directors around these goals can help nonprofits be more focused in their decision making.  

Find out where leadership is struggling and find tools to help them

Nonprofit board members need the right tools to get their jobs done. Even though a board might meet once a month or quarter, there are still critical milestones that must be met in between these meetings. Additionally, there are decisions that need to be made. Finding the right solution makes this possible and can be a huge step towards empowering your board to be effective. Whether your board prefers a simple online board portal or a more conventional paper trail, regular updates help board members feel connected.

Listen to your fellow board members, your volunteers, and the people who staff your organization

You will learn much more by inviting people to tell you what they need to succeed, how they view their own roles, and why they’re involved with your organization. Consider some simple surveying techniques. For example, have each meeting attendee list one thing that worked well in the meeting and one thing they would change at the end of the session.

Mind the clock when planning meetings

Time is money, even in the nonprofit world. That means a big part of your job will be finding ways to get more done in less time. Respect the schedules of your fellow board members by prioritizing online methods of communication and flexible meeting times. Most importantly, start and end meetings on time– no matter what. Another great idea is to have a time-based agenda that allots a specific amount of time to each item for discussion.

Reach out for support and help

The work of a nonprofit board is never done, regardless of how successful you are. Use your networks to raise awareness and to seek advice for your cause, and make outreach an integral element of your leadership. Not only will you get well-rounded input, but the people you ask for expertise may feel an emotional investment in your organization. You never know who will become the next board member or donor! The more people who can help you reach your goals, the better off your organization will be.

Nonprofit board leadership best practices

Are there board leadership tools that can help?

You’ve got the right people in place and exciting ideas to execute. You can reduce friction and amp up progress for your team by finding the right people management, communication and marketing, and fundraising and accounting tools.

People Management Tools

What’s a nonprofit without the people? From staff and volunteers to board and committee members, people are the lifeblood of your organization. That makes people management your top priority as a successful board leader. With people management comes the events and meetings you’ll need to attend and coordinate. Search for solutions that remove friction from meeting planning, ease communication between board members, and encourage volunteers to contribute their time and voices to your nonprofit’s cause.

Volunteer and Event Management

Whether you’ll handle this yourself or will delegate volunteer management to a team member, the right tech can save precious time.

SignUp.com offers online sign-up sheet templates for a long list of nonprofit events, sends invitations via social media, and syncs calendars.

Samaritan is a volunteer management system designed to help boards find, register, verify, and track volunteers in one interface. Record hours, set up sign-in stations, give surveys, and sort through data to make scheduling fast. If background checks are necessary, Samaritan lets users complete them in real time.

Board and Committee Management

Taming a board’s demanding schedules can seem impossible—but with the right communication tools, staying in touch and planning meetings can go smoothly, no matter where attendees are.

Boardable takes the guesswork out of board management with a document center, real-time vote and poll features, and a meeting center. Make scheduling and agendas easy and painless, help board members manage their own time, and amplify the reach of the board. Boardable is ideal for community nonprofit organizations.

To compare meeting and board management software options, try comparing them on independent comparison sites like G2 Crowd or Capterra.

Communications & Marketing Tools

As a board leader, you must sell your message internally as well as externally. But even the best messages can’t make an impact if no one hears them. That means communications and marketing have to be both clear and compelling.

Internal Promotion and Engagement

Promotion and engagement are much easier thanks to social media. It’s provided nonprofits of all sizes a mostly cost-free way to find, attract, and interact with both potential board members and volunteers. Knowing how to leverage social media is one of most valuable skills a board leader can develop.

Use Facebook Groups to connect directly with supporters, offer exclusive content, hold polls, and collaborate on event planning. For internal audiences, Facebook Groups can supplement the communications that board and committee members have via email or offline channels.

External Promotion and Marketing

A social media dashboard can make external promotion and marketing much easier for busy board leaders and their teams. The dozens of free and low-cost tools on the market give you the power to schedule posts and receive engagement analytics. You can also use them to find and follow influencers in your space. If your organization has funding for paid social ads, a social media dashboard can track ad performance as well as ROI.

Hootsuite and Buffer have both free and premium options for reporting and engagement tools, as well as scheduling features. Manage nearly all your social media channels at once, get real-time insights into performance, and set times for posts to go live, so you don’t have to sit in front of a laptop.

TweetDeck is 100% free and offers a clean, easy-to-use interface for multiple Twitter accounts. This can be especially useful for real-time engagement during live events.

Fundraising and accounting tools can make the job of nonprofit board leadership easier and more effective.

Fundraising & Accounting Tools

Regardless of the organization, fundraising is foundational to fulfilling your team’s financial goals. The fintech landscape is growing rapidly, and many companies are creating nonprofit versions of their commercial software. Invest in solutions that enable easy giving, track the donor pipeline, and simplify the accounting process.

Fundraising and Giving Tools

Forget telethon phone lines and little envelopes: it’s never been easier to donate. Mobile apps, social media integrations, and SMS texting provide donors with quick ways to give money in just seconds. Social media is becoming the Swiss Army Knife of online communication, and one of the world’s most popular social media channels offers a wide range of fundraising options.

Facebook makes it easy to set up fundraising programs. The social media platform also partners with Network for Good to distribute funds to nonprofits not registered with Facebook Payments, allowing smaller nonprofits to save the step of signing up.

Bloomerang delivers donor management and retention, reporting, and email distribution in a single platform. Reduce donor attrition, increase revenue, and integrate with dozens of other systems for seamless content creation and message consistency.

Salesforce also offers a nonprofit version of its CRM to help with donor relationship management. Salesforce.org includes Philanthropy Cloud, which partners with GuideStar, the world’s largest database for nonprofit organizations.

OneCause offers Text2Give, a program fully integrated into the larger OneCause platform. Create custom calls-to-action, receive direct deposits, and track donations in real time.

Givelify is a free mobile app that collects donations and offers a web portal for nonprofits to track and receive funds. Customize the app to include your organization’s branding, create campaigns, and integrate with existing financial management software.

Accounting Tools

Every dollar a nonprofit receives must be used wisely. As a board leader, you may be tasked with handling at least some of the financials—and having the right software can make the difference between clean books and another headache.

QuickBooks Nonprofit Software is a familiar program with features for the nonprofit sector. Create advanced donor lists, customize security for donor data, and run reports quickly. QuickBooks also allows for multiple users to work at the same time, removing the need to wait for file access.

Aplos is simple, online accounting software where no experience is necessary to keep your books. Built specifically to serve nonprofits and places of worship, Aplos is cloud-based and requires no downloads. Affordably priced and easy to use, it’s a great solution for many small and medium-sized nonprofit organizations to accept and track donations.

Today’s nonprofit ecosystem relies on technology to thrive. Leveraging the right apps and programs can streamline processes, increase visibility, and make serving on a board (slightly!) easier. As a nonprofit leader, your commitment to finding the right resources and tools to become a better leader will propel you on a fulfilling journey to serve others.

For a takeaway of the resources we’ve covered, grab a free copy of The Accelerated Board Leader Kickoff Kit

The Accelerated Board Leader Kick-off Kit

Ready for leadership takeoff?

As a nonprofit leader, increasing board productivity isn’t just about shorter meetings and higher donation figures. It’s about leaning in to the challenges of leading a nonprofit board, understanding its vision, and committing to making your little patch of Earth a better place to live. Whether you’re early in your board leadership journey, or a veteran in the space, the following three takeaways are valuable:

  1. Listen. Listen to your fellow board members, your volunteers, and the people who staff your organization. You will learn much more by inviting people to tell you what they need to succeed, how they view their own roles, and why they’re involved with your organization.
  2. Mind the clock. Time is money, even in the nonprofit world. That means a big part of your job will be finding ways to get more done in less time. Respect the schedules of your fellow board members by prioritizing online methods of communication and flexible meeting times.
  3. Reach out. The work of a nonprofit board is never done, regardless of how successful you are. Use your networks to raise awareness and funds for your cause, and make outreach an integral element of your leadership. The more people who can help you reach your goals, the better off your organization will be.

We hope the information in this post will allow you to kick your board leadership into high gear. Lead on!

The Wake-Up Call - Nonprofit Leadership Study Report

The nonprofit sector faces unprecedented challenges including changes in tax laws, new funding models, and aging leadership. Based on more than 1,100 surveys with nonprofit leaders, “The Wake Up Call” report presents key findings from the first major study on nonprofit leadership, led by Dr. Adrian Sargeant and Harriet Day of the University of Plymouth in England. This 45-page report is chock-full of compelling data and insights.

Download your copy of “Wake Up Call: A Study of Nonprofit Leadership in the US.”

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“The Wake Up Call” provides a road map for nonprofits that want to navigate these challenges. Learn what leadership styles are dominant at nonprofits and why some are more effective than others. Learn what works (and what doesn’t) in fundraising, strategic planning, and succession planning. See how your nonprofit stacks up against the data, and learn how to build a stronger culture of philanthropy across your organization. Grab your copy now.


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