As a nonprofit grows and changes, so should the role of your board. While the basic legal responsibilities of a nonprofit’s board should always be kept in mind to avoid liability, throughout the lifecycle of a successful nonprofit, the role of the board does shift as the organization grows. Let’s look at three basic stages in that process:
1. Infancy Stage
When your nonprofit is just starting out, or if the nonprofit is small (think under $50,000 in annual revenue), your board tends to be very involved in the day-to-day, hands-on aspects of your nonprofit. At this stage, one of the best things you can do is recruit board members who can help fill in gaps for you. For example, if your founding board members aren’t great at fundraising, recruit a board member who is so they can help strengthen your board and nonprofit as a whole. We go through some of these details in the last paragraph of this blog post.
You’ll also want to weigh the pros and cons of having an attorney on your board. While having an attorney on your board can be great for problem-solving and community connections, there are some dangers of using this free board attorney for nonprofit-related concerns.
2. Growing Stage
Once your nonprofit has a few years of experience and/or a growing team of staff & volunteers, your board’s role changes. At this stage, the board can help make medium and big picture decisions, but probably won’t be able to be involved in every little detail like a smaller organization. We see a lot of growing pains as boards move in or out of this stage, so it may be helpful to read about some of our tips to proactively manage conflict on your board if you’re in this stage.
Even if your board members seem well-established, this stage is also an excellent time to continue setting clear expectations for each board member’s role and revisiting their obligations. Not only does this help protect board members from liability, it can also serve as a way to avoid some of the top 5 mistakes we see boards make.
3. Big Picture Stage
Beyond the growing stage lies the big picture stage. At this point, it would be impossible for your board to know every day-to-day detail of your operations. The focus of the board at this point should be big picture decisions, like the general direction of the organization, as well as fundraising. A great nonprofit board in the third stage should support and guide the overall direction of the organization and they should be comfortable using their networks to help you raise funds for your cause.
We’ve also found that in this stage it’s especially helpful to have a board member or two who can ask hard questions and provoke both passion and practicality. We call these visionary board members “rabble rousers” and they can thrive when the boardroom is an intellectually stimulating and empowering environment.
There aren’t set times or exact markers that tell you when to transition your board to the next stage, but often, it will become apparent on its own when your board starts experiencing growing pains. There are also some board issues that warrant consideration at any and all of these stages – for example, how board inattentiveness can lead to personal liability.
If you have specific questions about a conflict on your board, or if you’re simply looking for advice on making your board the best it can be, you’re welcome to reach out. Having an outside perspective on the matter can be a powerful tool and we’d love to help.