The More Nonprofit Boards, The Better

by Bill Weber

Posted October 23, 2019

How many nonprofit boards do you think there are in the U.S.? Take a second and write down a number.

Now, what was your guess? 100,000? Maybe 250,000? You might be surprised to learn that, according to the IRS, there were 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S. in 2016 (the most recent reporting year). Of those nonprofits, about 1 million don’t report income. So, a practical estimate for how many active nonprofit boards there are in the country is 500,000!

And here’s another way to consider that figure: projections suggest the U.S. population will reach approximately 333 million by 2020. This means that for approximately every 700 people in the US, there will be one nonprofit board!

And not only is there a vast number of boards, there is vast variety in regards to types of boards: advisory boards, cooperative governance boards, policy boards, fiduciary boards, boards that have trusts, trusts that have boards…  the list goes on. 

Here’s the rub. Just about any authoritative nonprofit management/governance book refers to the board in terms of its fiduciary responsibility and setting strategic direction and accountability.  Yet, if you ask fiduciary board members what relevant experience they draw upon, they often will refer to time spent on non-fiduciary “boards”—ranging from school committees, to neighborhood community action projects, to university campaign committees.  This rich variety of Voluntary Association Leadership Structures (VALS) experience is indicative of a unique and remarkable American characteristic: our active participation in “multiple associations” that Alexis De Tocqueville eloquently first described in Democracy in American (1835). The point being that, the operational usage of the term board is fluid and inclusive, and the range of experience is vast.

Now, this varied board experience isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, I’d argue it’s the complete opposite! However, too often, board recruitment and governance fail to take advantage of members’ varied organizational experience. Or, if nonprofits do consider it, it’s from a place of concern;  they wonder, “How can we be sure the board members we recruit have the right kind of experience? And if we do recruit members from a different type of board, how do we bridge the gap?”

While these questions are certainly valid and worthy of consideration, I believe the vastness of boards actually presents an opportunity as opposed to a challenge. The most successful boards are able to appreciate and take advantage of their members’ array of organizational experience. Here are a couple techniques you can employ to do exactly that…

While Recruiting, Ask the Questions That Matter

In my previous article Recruitment: The Overlooked Lifeblood of Board Health, I suggested that the question “What is the role of the board?” isn’t the best framework for a board development review. The question is static as opposed to strategic, and often lacks context or a call to action. I would argue the question also isn’t ideal in discussions with potential board members. For one, most people will likely provide similar answers (fiduciary responsibility, advocacy, philanthropic contributions, etc.). And second, the question doesn’t encourage potential members to identify their personal strengths. Consider asking instead, “Which core responsibilities of the board interest you most?” By doing so, nonprofits can identify the varied contributions potential members can offer and better ensure fit.

Re-Assess Your Current Board Members

An assessment of your fiduciary board member’s experience with voluntary associations might reveal untapped opportunities. For instance, perhaps your nonprofit focuses on educational opportunities for underserved young women, and you’ve recruited a lawyer to your board for their legal acumen. However, unbeknownst to you, this lawyer also volunteers as a girls’ basketball coach at her daughter’s high school.  This experience could mean she’d be a great asset in advocating on behalf of the population the organization serves, but by only focusing on her profession, you forego the opportunity to fully benefit from her range of experience. Naturally, this is a specific example, but it illustrates the importance of more closely considering the breadth of experience your current board members hold. The takeaway being that often, fiduciary boards whose members are actively involved in various other ‘associations’ (and who draw upon that experience as a board member) have the greatest potential for innovation, network influence, and participation.

If you have read this far, I hope you can agree that the key to board success is embracing and taking advantage of varied experience, and as the title states – the more nonprofit boards, the better!

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