Part Four of Starting a Nonprofit: How to Choose the Best Board of Directors

How to Choose the Best Board of Directors

Starting Your Nonprofit

Sweat equity. That’s how you’ve been putting the pieces of your nonprofit startup together so far. You’re working hard and doing your best to learn all the important details. Things such as filing for a 501(c)3 IRS status, finding out how to legally organize your nonprofit—the technical steps that go beyond common sense.

Just the other day, though, you were thrown a little curveball. Someone asked about your board of directors.

You did an amazing job explaining that you don’t currently have a board of directors. You didn’t even stumble over your words as your brain was going in 12 different directions. Your brain cells were stringing together question after question, such as:

  • Is it a bad thing that we don’t have a board of directors?
  • When is it time for a nonprofit startup to build a board of directors?
  • What does that even look like?
  • How do we build a board?
  • How many people should be on a board for a nonprofit?
  • Who should serve on a board of directors for a nonprofit?

Don’t sweat it. Your head is in exactly the right place.

How do you know if a board of directors is a good fit for your nonprofit organization?

Every nonprofit must have a board of directors. It’s a legal requirement to file for your nonprofit status. These individuals will be named members on the paperwork filed with your nonprofit’s home state. So the best time to assemble a board is before you move forward to file the appropriate paperwork.

Start by understanding the legal and fiduciary responsibilities of your board members. You’ll need members who are qualified to meet the requirements of their role. So someone who has experience in such a role with a similarly sized nonprofit or an attorney with the appropriate legal knowledge would make excellent board members.

Aside from being legally required to appoint a board, another good a reason you to have a board of directors is simple: You want help. You recognize that there’s still more to learn, and you reach out to those who can help you make your nonprofit the best it can be.

So how do you find those individuals who will be the best fit for your nonprofit?

Start With a Mentor

Did you read the article with tips for every executive director starting a nonprofit? In that article, we talk about finding a mentor to help you as you run your heart-centered NPO. A mentor as we described in the article would make a great addition to your board of directors.

You’re looking for someone who has been where you are and made it through to more growth and success in their nonprofit. Find someone who is empathetic, who can see your vision for what it is and offer you feedback that isn’t always in agreement with what you want. This person will be an asset to your organization and a good bridge between the practical and the dream.

Look for Diversity

Diversity of background, profession, experience—it’s important to have varying perspectives. The best way to do that is by gathering together a diverse group of people to be your board.

If you have a board comprised entirely of five attorneys, then your board will have a more limited perspective than if you have a board consisting of an accountant, an attorney, a work-from-home-mom, an entrepreneur, and a venture capitalist, for example.

Keep It Small

About five board members is pretty ideal. It’s an odd number, which is helpful in breaking ties, and it’s just enough people to have a variety of input without gridlocking each decision by too many voices.

Remember Their Purpose

The purpose of a board is most often to set policy, meet fiduciary responsibilities (such as planning a budget and approving expenditures), plan strategically, offer you (the executive director) a performance review, and oversee subcommittees.

While not every board has to function precisely in this manner, it’s always best to find individuals who are experienced and skilled with policy-setting, budgeting, and planning.

Look for Complementary Skill Sets

Do you know what you’re good at? Try to find others who are good at other things. By adding complementary skills to your organization’s arsenal, you’re setting your NPO up for success.

Invest in Your Board Search

Finding the right candidates is going to take some time. Invest yourself in the process by spending time with potential candidates. Get to know each person so you can develop a feel for things such as communication styles. The small things are important to be able to successfully work together. Call references. Ask about previous experience. Treat it like you would treat a job interview.

And don’t let yourself be wowed. Impressive people—quasi-celebrities; prominent, powerful, and influential people—may be interested in being part of your board. That’s great! The attention it can bring your organization is invaluable. But vet this person just as you’d vet any other candidate.

Be Worthy of Good People

The nonprofit is your baby. It’s hard to release any control of it to anyone else. So work on developing your ability to let go and listen to others. Practice with small things. The more practice you get in, the easier it will be for bigger things.

Clearly outline your vision of the organization and how you plan to further its mission. Be clear and concise in your expectations, and be willing to accept that there might be a piece of the puzzle you can’t see.

Set Term Limits

The biggest benefit to having a board of directors is ideas. People come to the table with their own set of perceptions, experiences, and backgrounds. The differences in each of us mean we’ll probably have different ideas about solving the same problem.

Having a variety of ideas is invaluable to growing your nonprofit.

Eventually, though, ideas run out. We begin to operate on autopilot. That’s why it’s vital to add term limits to each position on the board so you can bring in fresh eyes every few years.

Do you still have questions? Take a look at these additional resources on working with your board of directors.

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