Organization & Leadership Consulting

What Effective (Nonprofit) Boards Do


An effective nonprofit board meets to discuss ideas

Last week we discussed what a governing board is not. This week we’re shifting our focus to what effective nonprofit boards do, and how understanding this will benefit your organization.

Effective Nonprofit Boards Understand Their Organization’s Identity 

As the primary governing body, with final authority over an organization, a Board of Directors must make its decisions within the context of the organization’s identity and mission. Like all other parts of a healthy and effective organization, governing boards are most unified when driven by clarified Values, Mission, and Vision.

  • Values – What is most important to the organization about how it does its work;
  • Mission – The difference the organization is making and for whom;
  • Vision – A compelling mental image of the increased difference the organization will make in the future and for whom;

In order to best understand an organization’s identity, board members must also be familiar with its history. Rooted in an understanding of its origins and its past trajectory, a board can help generate and fuel momentum in the push forward, without causing unintentional “mission drift”. 

They Understand their Role Within the Organization

Boards and their individual members must clearly understand their roles in relation to the executive director/CEO and staff. Here are a few key points of clarification:

  •  Boards represent the interests of the “owners” to the organization. Therefore, they must be clear about who the owners are and what their long-term interests are.
  • Boards lead through setting long-term outcomes and strive to stay at that level. They support and resource the First Chair leader they have selected without doing his or her work for them/their staff.
  • Boards serve by representing the organization to strategic elements of the population and by generating resources according to agreed-upon targets and parameters. 

Effective Nonprofit Boards Govern Themselves as Well as the Organization

Effective Board Chairs act as a “Chief Governance Officer” and, in addition to facilitating results-oriented meetings, ensure a board is always (ALWAYS) actively seeking to improve its understanding of and skill sets in governance rather than operations.

Board Members agree to speak into the board’s processes, priorities, and decision making using their own voices while also representing the “owners”. They also agree to speak only with “one voice” as the leave meetings and represent the Board to staff and the broader population.  

They Generate Resources for the Mission of the Organization

Because most board members care deeply about the organization and its mission, they truly want to help. It is important to be aware of which hat is being worn at which time. During meetings and while executing official board business, the member wears a “Governance Hat”. This is a narrow but deep scope of responsibility. 

Outside of meetings, members may wear a “Volunteer Hat” or a “Networking Hat” or a “Donor Relationship-Building Hat”. There are connections between the Hats but rarely are there overlaps. It is always helpful for Boards to remind its members of their entire “Hat Rack” and how to prudently and forthrightly switch from one to the other as they serve on, in, or on behalf of the Board and the organization it governs, serves, and represents.


TurningWest, Your guide to a healthy culture and human work systems, can help nonprofit boards think through every aspect of its roles and responsibilities, resulting in greater clarity, ownership, and traction. 


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