Building Board Leaders Requires a Process

Any experienced nonprofit CEO will tell you that they can do their jobs more effectively when they have a strong board leadership team with which to partner. Yet many nonprofits struggle to find and nurture strong board leaders, and when they are successful they tend to become overly reliant upon them and risk burnout. It’s another indication of the task orientation many nonprofit leaders take with regards to board development, and it often leads to struggles in maintaining organizational momentum.

So, what’s the most effective way to develop a culture that ensures you’re grooming your leadership talent and moving your most committed and seasoned board members towards officer positions? The following suggestions should help:

Make board and leadership development an organizational priority – A harsh truth is that nonprofits that struggle with board and leadership development will continue to struggle unless there is a genuine commitment from staff and board leaders. It takes time and ongoing effort to do it successfully, so make building board and leadership capacity a strategic priority for your organization.

An easy place to begin is to provide your governance committee with a clear charge to assess the current board, create recruitment strategies based on identified needs, and develop board leadership. Have your executive committee support those goals by meeting with all current board members to discuss their current involvement, their ability to increase their engagement, and their willingness to step into leadership positions. When accountability becomes clear on a board, it forces those who have been marginally involved to either step in to a higher level of commitment or get off the board, and an expectation of a growing level of involvement becomes embedded in the organizational DNA. Make sure your executive director is devoting the time necessary to supporting the committee in achieving its goals, as this process will need their involvement to succeed.

Ensure this work is ongoing – The board and staff team that composes your governance committee should be actively engaged in the tasks of board assessment, strategic recruitment, and developing engagement and leadership all year long. Leadership development and succession should be standing agenda items for the committee, as this is where you’ll begin to develop the desired flow from new committee member to chair, committee chair to officer, and officer to President that you’re looking for. Keep the leadership development conversation alive in your discussions with prospective and current board members, and discuss it at board meetings, as this will set a high and clear bar for organizational culture.

Institute Term Limits – As discussed in a previous post, the most effective framework to help stimulate a culture of leadership succession is to institute term limits for all board members and officers. This ensures a constantly flowing organizational discussion about current needs, skill-sets to look for in prospective new members, leadership succession, and officer selection.

Stagger board terms – Once your term limits are in place, create a staggered term structure where you have an equal amount of new board member openings and board members terming off every year. This framework helps to drive the recruitment and leadership succession conversations for the governance committee, as it helps them understand what skills will be needed and where leadership opportunities exist.

If a board member has to leave the board before his or her term is completed, consider bringing on a new board member to complete the term, rather than start anew. By recruiting new members to fill out the remainder of a term, you fill an immediate vacancy and have the opportunity to give a new board member a “test drive.” If you choose not to go in that direction and fill all vacancies with full terms, keep in mind that because of unanticipated departures you’ll probably have to tweak your term system a bit every few years to keep a healthy numerical balance of new and retiring members.

The bottom line is that strong and effective board leaders don’t just drop down out the sky—they are developed through effective organizational process and accountability. Results won’t happen overnight, but making a strategic commitment to an ongoing board and leadership development process will undoubtedly pay big dividends for your organization and its mission over time, so do what you can to get started.

Scott Schnapp authored this blog post in his role as a Consulting Partner here at Starboard. A full bio for Scott is available on the Starboard Leadership Consulting website, and you can contact him directly at [email protected].