How to build a great startup nonprofit board (and why you need to)

Are you ready to create a great startup nonprofit board? One that effectively moves your organization forward? If you are, chances are you’ve had your nonprofit up and going for a while and discovered that your current board isn’t quite doing it.

Almost everyone starts a nonprofit with a board made up of friends. It only makes sense – you need some names and addresses for the IRS form and some support and cheerleading, but unless you’ve done this before, it’s all pretty new. So how could you possibly know who would be best for your board?

Your friends have probably been great cheerleaders, so kudos to them! But there usually comes a time when you realize that as much as you enjoy your friends, they’re not really helping move the organization forward.

Why? They may have joined with the caveat that they’ll keep the seat warm but don’t have much time. Or they may not have the skills you really need. Are any of your existing board members, for example, great at fundraising?

Hahaha. You probably wouldn’t be reading this if they were. Need we say more?

Who you need on your Board

First and foremost, you need people who:

  • are passionate about what your organization does
  • truly want to give their time and energy to help

After 20+ years in nonprofits, I can tell you that sometimes, people join boards for reasons unrelated to the organization – and that can eat up your time.

It’s not unheard of, for example, for someone to join a board because they’re new in town and want to make connections. So be sure that their reasons for joining fit with your mission.

Which professions make for great board members?

There are a few professional categories that can be good for board members right off. It’s helpful to have a financial person serve as your treasurer, for example, to handle your financials, provide fiscal oversight, and possibly even submit your IRS Form 990 each year.

You may also be glad to have an attorney, and someone who enjoys taking meeting notes would be a good choice for Secretary. Just keep in mind that you’ll want them to offer more than just their professional expertise.

Who else could be helpful will depend on what service your nonprofit provides – an expert in your field might be a plus, as would someone who can open doors to contacts in your field. But when you think about it, who do you really need if you’re going to do much of anything?

Funding, the Numero Uno for nonprofits

It’s really very simple. What is it that your organization can’t do without? Funding. What do most people think is the most difficult thing to do? Ask for money. They may say they can do it when asked, but as your balance sheet probably proves, that doesn’t always play out.

So, you need people who either can donate funds themselves (and would love to do it) or are with a company with a strong giving program – one that funds programs like yours. The key is to find people and companies who are also passionate about what your nonprofit does. If your interests align with theirs, they will be more likely to help.

Cultivating your board

If you’d like to make an experienced nonprofit director laugh, tell her that most boards are effective and proactive. Effective boards are, in fact, rare and it takes a lot of thought and energy to cultivate an effective, proactive board. But that’s not to say it’s not worth it.

A proactive board can take your organization forward faster than anything, and the truth is that it’s up to you (and a nonprofit board development professional, if that suits your style) to cultivate your members. What do you need to do it, what does it take? It takes good leadership, modeling, and consistent pushing. Gentle, consistent pushing – but definitely consistent.

Here are a few thoughts on how to lead (and push).

The Executive Director MUST be willing to make the ask

The Executive Director must be willing to ask for funding and other support. Why?

  1. Modeling, pure and simple. If the director isn’t willing to step out there for the organization, why should anyone else?
  2. Once the director has the experience of having asked – over and over – she will begin to gain confidence in herself and the process. Few people like asking at first … but with practice, that changes. As an added bonus, the seasoned “asker” will have some credibility when encouraging others to ask.

Why is it so hard to make the ask?

It helps to face the problem square on: why is it that most of us have such a hard time asking for money? My answer is subjective (and I’d love to hear yours in the comments section below), but here it is:

  • In the US, a person is often judged by their wealth or lack of it
  • Wealthy people tend to be guarded about their finances, so you can feel like you’re stepping on hallowed ground
  • Asking for money puts you in a vulnerable position

Your frame of mind is everything. If you think you really shouldn’t ask, you’ll probably be unsuccessful. But consider what you’re asking (and who it’s for), and perhaps you’ll change your mind about who is doing whom the favor.

Why it really is good to give

There’s a traditional story that drives home the concept that it’s better to give than receive.

A man once asked a saint about the difference between heaven and hell. He immediately found himself in a room full of people who were obviously suffering. All he could hear was moaning and crying and he saw that they were starving despite the bowls of food on the tables in front of them.

When the man looked closely, he saw they all had long-handled spoons attached to their hands, but the handles were so long they couldn’t get the spoons to their mouths. The saint told him that this was hell.

He was immediately taken to another room. This one was filled with happiness. Just like the other room, the people had bowls of food and long-handle spoons attached to their hands. They, however, were spooning the food into each other’s mouths. The saint told him that this was heaven.

You’re offering an opportunity for happiness

This brings me to a saying I learned early in my nonprofit career:

When you ask people to support your cause, you’re giving them an opportunity to feel good about themselves.

Would you agree that our culture could benefit from more unselfish giving? Carry that over to the people who could support your organization, and it will give you and your board the strength to put yourself aside, get vulnerable, and even start to enjoy asking.

It’s your culture that matters

What makes a great board where members are proactively using their talents and strengths to drive the organization forward and do more good? I think it’s something that goes beyond words, that je ne sais quoi that’s felt rather than stated. It’s active, not passive.

It’s the joy of a shared journey with an important mission … the positive energy that comes with putting yourself aside.

I realize this is a departure from most advice about the board of directors, but it’s my best. Be willing to stick your neck out so you can support those you serve. Always encourage your board members to do the same. Expect them to do the same. And you will have a great board that helps you achieve your vision.

Merge Education

Mary Helen Rossi is Co-Director of Merge Education, which grew out of 20 years of after-school fine arts mentoring to over 2,500 challenged young people. Merge’s student assessment and program management software reflects this experience: as one client said, “It’s clear that a lot of thought and love went into SETS!”