Who speaks nonprofit on your board?
How is your organization’s board composed? If you’re like most nonprofits, chances are good you’ve got a mix of professionals and donors. You may even have clients or alumni serving on your board. But do you have people on your board who speak nonprofit, too?
Most of the boards I’ve worked with (or sat on) do a solid job recruiting lawyers, real estate brokers, accountants, and other business people. They bring a lot of professionalism, a useful understanding of governance, and (if you’re lucky) real fundraising moxie. They are also accustomed to working in businesses that are comparatively resource-rich, and the language of business they speak is often different. It’s likely their company has budgets for things that most nonprofits can’t afford, for example. They might also be accustomed to using tools or frameworks that don’t really work the same way for nonprofits (such as compensation incentives, for example).
One board I served on had lots of members with nonprofit sector expertise. Those board members all shared a pragmatic, grounded perspective on what might or might not be realistic for the paid staff to achieve. At times, we were perhaps so concerned with the staff’s capacity we might not have pushed far enough on ambitious projects or vision. We could have used more board members who brought different perspectives.
On other boards where I’ve been the only member with nonprofit sector experience I have found myself working to explain how things may be different than other board members are accustomed to, and trying to recalibrate their expectations. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got very high expectations for the organizations I donate my time to. But I also understand from first-hand experience that nonprofit staff people are inherently spread thin, and working in a sector where the best practices aren’t necessarily the same as they are in corporate settings.
Most nonprofits review their board composition periodically in some formal or informal fashion. The next time you review yours, consider who speaks nonprofit on your board. Are those people usefully helping translate between the board and staff (both ways)? If not, consider recruiting others who can. They’ll help teach your less fluent board members the language of nonprofits a bit more, and perhaps help you manage expectations.