The Board You Deserve

A colleague, as he gets ready to hang up his shingle, wonders what has changed in the nonprofit sector since he started consulting. It’s not an idle question—he wants to know if the many years he’s devoted to this work has made a difference. Silence—unusual for this group—then someone starts to talk about the incredible growth in the number of nonprofits. We veer off into a conversation about that. Too many nonprofits, not enough professionalism—people want their nonprofit without consideration for what is best for others.

What’s changed, think after we get back on track, is not a whole heck of a lot. What needs to change is oversight. It has to be harder to become a 501(c)3. There needs to be better measurements of success. And boards….there is a collective sigh.

All nonprofits must have a board of directors. In California, there must be at least 3 board members. Too often, these 3—or whatever number the board grows to—are all friends who care about the organization but have no training in being board members.

There is a growing number of “Board Chair” trainings but from what I’ve seen, they miss the mark. First staff—especially but not exclusively—the CEO must understand the purpose of a board, the values a board can bring, and how the CEO and the board can work together in partnership.

Secondly, board members—all board members, not just the chair—need comprehensive training on what their job is. A cursory “Board Role and Responsibilities” won’t cut it.

It starts, of course, with clarity on both sides of what is needed and what is expected. From each other!

Those expectations need to be realistic and in line with what is necessary for the nonprofit to flourish and grow. In too many of the organizations with which I work, the board is considered a necessary evil and this informs the way the board and staff work—or don’t—together.

CEO’s who understand the value of a board take care in crafting procedures for recruiting and training members. Yes, certainly, there is a need to reach out to new communities and people, but before you invite them to be part of your governance team, ask them to connect in meaningful ways with your organization. Too many nonprofits make the serious mistake of asking strangers to serve on their board. Look around at the larger and more successful nonprofits. Their boards are made up of people who have long been connected with the cause and the organization. They are all major donors and all committed supporters.

Without a strong and committed board, most nonprofits will not thrive. Too many of the too many nonprofits out there are started because a founder wants to do it his or her way, rather than considering whether there is a better way to serve potential clients.   It’s a viscous cycle that doesn’t serve our sector well.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity and build stronger, more committed board. Learn how she can help you and your organization at, or email her directly at