Strategic Principles for Effective Nonprofit Governance

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1 New International Version).

As engaged professionals, we are often called upon to serve on various nonprofit boards and committees in the church and in the community. Some boards function very well and the organization benefits as a result. Many boards, however, are dysfunctional and, as a consequence, the organization suffers. Based upon the author’s 35 years of working with numerous church, civic, and denominational boards and committees, the following principles of effective board governance have proven to go a long way toward achieving mission success.

Encourage transparent, timely, and substantive information from management, at least on a monthly basis to operate effectively.

Provide time at each board meeting for continuing education related to the organization’s mission: how to read financial statements, the legal environment of the business, the role of the board, the roles of leadership staff, and more.

Take advantage of every opportunity to express appreciation for a board member’s voluntary service: comments on email communications and in board reports, public acknowledgment at the annual corporation meeting, expressions of gratitude in newsletters and publications, and so forth.

Set aside time for consecrated prayer. Experience has shown that time after time the guidance and blessing of God has come to an organization in response to consecrated prayer from the board and leadership team.

Encourage open-minded discussion and respectful consideration of the ideas of others. Exercise good listening skills, including body language, and always strive for consensus, not conflict.

Having times together in a relaxed setting can create the glue necessary to form unity and consensus. An occasional board retreat can prove helpful in this regard.

Set the stage for effective board service with an informative orientation meeting, in person, in advance of a new member’s first board meeting. Assign a peer from the board to mentor a new member.

Prepare and distribute reports authored by the leadership staff well in advance. Encourage members of the board to read the reports carefully prior to their arrival at the board meetings, inviting them to ask questions to obtain clarification and understanding in advance of their attendance.

Create the board meeting agenda carefully, keeping in mind the purpose of the meeting. Consider the idea of scheduling standing committees—those focused on specialized areas by member expertise —to meet in advance of full board sessions, thereby vetting recommendations prior to the full board discussion.

Conduct annual self-assessments for individual board members and for the board as a whole. Seek feedback on how board meetings were conducted, and respond proactively to the suggestions with continual improvements for more effective meetings in the future.

Mark the occasions of goal achievement with celebration, reminding the board members that their involvement is key to organization success. Be consistently joyful and upbeat, even in the midst of crises.

With numerous competing interests and causes, a nonprofit organization simply cannot afford to operate with a dysfunctional board of directors. A governing board that follows the above strategic principles can expect to achieve significant results and have many occasions for celebration in the years ahead.

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