Thought Leadership: Considerations When Establishing a Volunteer Board
BY Ashley Roberts
A volunteer board of leaders can be an incredible asset to your organization. From their community ties and professional expertise to their philanthropic interests, these individuals are more than just the fiduciary stewards of your organization. Just as each nonprofit’s mission is unique, the members of their boards – and the traits to building a successful board for your organization – vary greatly.
Nonprofit leaders across the healthcare sector have the same concerns about their boards: How many members should we have? How many members is too many? What expectations can we set for our board members? How do we create a culture that reflects the community we serve and supports our organization? This blog will review the data available to help your organization answer these questions and create a board to serve your organization philanthropically and beyond.
Size of Board
Each nonprofit organization’s needs are specific to the community they serve. However, there are some guidelines that can help an organization evaluate the success of the board they have built and set goals for the board they wish to build. The Nonprofit Research Collaborative conducted a large survey study of 1,600 nonprofits in the United States and 180 nonprofits in Canada. While this report showed that boards have a wide range of sizes – from fewer than 10 members to more than 30 – it identified that most nonprofit boards included 11 to 20 members. This metric should be a starting point for organizations. You must also consider the size of your organization, its mission, and the sub-committees your organization will need to perform at its best.
Having a staffed, functioning board is an accomplishment for any organization, whether you are a newer, smaller organization or a larger organization with decades of history. In order to transform your board into an effective philanthropic board, you will need to establish expectations for your members during recruitment, and provide credit for all their work that contributes to fundraising success, not simply dollars given.
The organizations that replied to the Nonprofit Research Collaborative identified that 83% of nonprofits engaged their members in fundraising. The methods utilized are what appear to differentiate an effective board from a “best practices” board. According to The Northern Trust Institute, a key element to board success is establishing responsibilities early for members. These responsibilities will vary in time commitment and expertise required to perform.
Board members may come to you because of their passion for your organization, but as unexperienced philanthropists. In order to grow their comfort with a new practice, begin with tasks that require less effort, such as providing a list of their friends and colleagues who may be interested in learning about your organization, or thanking new donors using their name. A more experienced philanthropist may feel confident hosting an event at their home or business for your organization, speaking confidently as an ambassador. The most experienced and often most tenured with your organization may feel comfortable soliciting their network for donations. Regardless of the level of engagement, it is essential that your organization set clear, measurable, and achievable goals — not just for your board as a whole, but for each member individually.
According to the Aspen Leadership Group¸ administrative and board leaders can facilitate a culture of collective responsibility for the board through these engagements, as well as have increased philanthropic success. It is important to recognize that this growth will not only be seen in your board members’ personal giving — in the Nonprofit Research Collaborative study, only 10% of an organization’s giving typically comes from board members. The growth will be additive. Engaged board members who feel it is their responsibility to meet their goals will lead to new prospective donors and more exposure of your organization to the public.
Building a philanthropic culture where each individual member feels responsible for their portions of the organization’s goals can also be implemented by requiring each board member to make a leadership annual gift. The benefits of this requirement go beyond the fundraising successes. By requiring your board members to have financial “skin in the game,” you are giving your organization an opportunity to steward their gift, growing the closeness of your organization and board member. Furthermore, the board member can more easily ask their network to get involved in supporting your organization once they show they have supported the organization themselves.
A longitudinal study of nonprofit boards conducted by BoardSource in 2021 indicated that nearly 70% of respondents had a policy requiring annual contributions per board member. This varies in practice, from requiring personal contributions to a “give or get” policy, where your members can get credit for contributions they bring into the organization. For the healthcare organizations that responded to the Nonprofit Research Collaborative, the average annual requirement for their board members was just more than $3,000.
As nonprofit organizations continue their work to optimize their boards, it’s important to not just focus on having diverse board memberships, but also making sure to incorporate and recognize the different strengths each member brings to your organization.
The Council on Foundations noted that board members bring their perspective to organizations based on their worldview, which is shaped by their style of thinking, communication style, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or identification, age, class, economic background, religion, ability, geography, or philosophy. In order to utilize those various experiences, your board leadership will want to consider different ways to be an involved member. Perhaps an older version of your board came from similar industries and backgrounds, making them more comfortable speaking in large settings due to their professional background. A new board may see individuals from technology backgrounds who place higher value on technological solutions to reach an audience, rather than public oratory. A new board may have access to communities that educate your organization on how best to provide care for your community. While these opportunities may look different from your board’s past successes, incorporating these new approaches and ideas will prepare you for the next generation of philanthropy, community engagement, and success in the years ahead.
Determining how many board members your organization needs and seating them is just the beginning of the process in shaping a successful, fully functional volunteer board. The work then begins to set aggressive yet achievable goals for your members, and doing your part to utilize each member’s skills and experiences for the betterment of your organization, and the community it serves.