The structure of a board has an important influence on its effectiveness, and being cognizant of these matters is essential to improving a board’s performance. In this article, we’ll discuss four major factors that relate to the structure and composition of effective boards.
Until recently, nonprofit boards tended to be relatively large, with as many as 20 or more members including honorary members who rarely attended meetings. Today, those practices have changed. According to BoardSource, the average size of a nonprofit board in the U.S. is now 16 members.
The Board Chair
The role of the chair is the most important on the board, and the most demanding and time-consuming. The diligence, commitment and character of the chair determine the board’s agenda and the way committees are populated, and help to ensure that board and staff view the mission in the same way. Among other duties, the chair:
- Presides at board meetings
- Facilitates the work of the committees, often serving as an ex officio committee member
- Serves as the chief liaison with the president or executive director of the organization
- Works with the board’s executive committee and the president or executive director to prepare the agenda for board meetings
Board Recruitment & Diversity
A board that is too homogenous lacks the benefits that can be gained from bringing to its deliberations a range of perspectives that can lead to vigorous debate, well-rounded discussion and comprehensive examinations of key issues. For this reason, a board should ideally be composed of people with varying and relevant backgrounds, perspectives, expertise and experiences. To achieve this, it is important that the board take a strategic approach to recruiting new trustees, and that there be a strong nominating committee or board development committee to vet potential members.
Training & Ongoing Education
It is often assumed that new trustees coming from a business or professional background will automatically grasp the nuances of nonprofit governance. In fact, however, the nonprofit world differs in significant ways from the business world; because of this, new members not infrequently need help in adjusting to the nonprofit environment in order to become successful trustees. Board orientation is the first crucial step. In the weeks leading up to their first meeting as trustees, new board members should attend, as a class, a briefing led by the board chair or the head of the board development committee along with the chief executive officer.