Athletes say “no pain, no gain.” The expression also applies to not-for-profit organizations. The point when the growing pains of an organization begin are prompted less by age than by changes in leadership, size, budget or programming. For example, a small nonprofit may receive national media attention that garners a significant, new source of funds. Or a founder may decide to hire an executive director and administrative staff.
If your organization is at this point in its lifecycle, you’ll want to make sure your board of directors is up to the challenge. This may mean replacing the original founding board with a more experienced governing board. Here are 12 building blocks to help you and your board navigate obstacles:
- Recognize growing pains. Conflict is perfectly normal. This includes conflict between your board and new staff members, challenges over new fundraising methods and disagreement about mission and vision. Such conflicts are signs of success.
- Acknowledge the situation. Address issues as they arise at board meetings. Conflict won’t resolve itself. As difficult as it may seem, there needs to be open communication among board members.
- Be patient. Don’t expect the transition from founding members to a governing board to happen overnight. Some experts say it can take up to three years before a governing board is at its most effective.
- Limit board terms. Growth can’t happen without change, and that often means founders — and founding members — step down. Consider all the options. Some organizations replace their founders with two people sharing equal authority. This allows the board benefit from different, yet complementary, sets of skills.
- Outline responsibilities. Be clear about the respective roles and duties of staff and board members.
- Transfer knowledge. Founding and long-time board members likely know and do a lot. Set up a committee, non-voting emeritus board or advisory council for members who are stepping down so they can continue to share their expertise.
- Develop the board. To position itself for growth and change, your board’s chairperson should consider educational programs outlining the board’s fiduciary responsibility to your organization and the public. Board members often don’t realize the scope and significance of their charge.
- Increase professionalism. Founding boards often “do it all,” and they do it without formalized processes. However, growth requires structure and the regular review of financial statements (including a thorough understanding of what they mean). To retain relationships as your board evolves, create a database to track donors and other critical supporters.
- Rely on the human element. To make your processes formal, you’ll have to create job descriptions, mission and vision statements, and manuals on policy and procedures. Although these are important, they don’t guarantee effectiveness. Remember that it’s ultimately the people who serve on your board who enable smooth-running and successful processes.
- Orient new people. When recruiting board members, be sure they understand what’s expected of them. Make sure your board, in turn, knows about new members’ experience, expectations and interests.
- Avoid token recruiting. Although diversity is important for any board, don’t recruit representatives of particular constituencies if you don’t think they’ll dedicate themselves to the board and your nonprofit.
- Get professional assistance. Don’t hesitate to call on outside experts to facilitate discussions about growing your not-for-profit and to assist with financial planning and budgeting. Many foundations, including local community foundations, provide funds to nonprofit organizations that are trying to build their board and make ambitious strategic plans.
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