Board Development

November 2019: Board Governance – Plan for 2020

By | Board Development, Business Consulting, News

Contributor: Janet Marsh

Perhaps you are familiar with the quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” There are no truer words when dealing with high-stake initiatives, such as board governance.

Now is the time to develop your board’s Plan for 2020 to reach a higher level of effectiveness. Good governance is a direct reflection on the performance of your organization, and these Top 10 Tips provide ways to develop a high-performing board.

  1. The Power of Relationships: Get to know new trustees and nurture the relationships with existing ones by meeting with them one on one at least once a year. Showing gratitude for their volunteer service will make them feel valued and enhance their engagement.
  2. Succession Planning: We all want to say goodbye on good terms and in an expected time-frame. The on-boarding and off-boarding of your trustees should align with the term limits established in your bylaws. It is recommended the same number of trustees rotate on and off each year (unless you are expanding or right-sizing your board). In collaboration with your Committee on Trustees, develop a multi-year plan to fill Board Officer and Committee Chair positions. Share this plan (when appropriate) with the trustees or nominating committee to create transparency.
  3. Reflect, Evaluate & Plan: In busy times, it can be difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the past year. But feedback from an annual board assessment is worth its weight in gold and provides the opportunity to shape goals for the coming year. Trustees will also appreciate the opportunity to share their thoughts.
  4. Revisit Your Strategic Plan: Depending on where you are in the life cycle of your organization’s strategic plan, your board’s first meeting of the year should include a discussion on this topic to educate new trustees and refamiliarize existing trustees. During this review, benchmark your organization’s level of success in accomplishing the strategic goals, consider retiring goals that are no longer important or not achievable, and add new ones. During the year, progress on the plan should be a regular agenda item.
  5. Highly Effective Committees: Committees should be established according to your bylaws with ad hoc committees created as necessary. The committee chairs and participants should be finalized prior to the start of the new year and meet before the first board meeting to draft:
    • An annual Board Committee Charter inclusive of annual goals based on action items from the strategic plan
    • A meeting schedule for the year
  1. Fundraising: Trustees must know the financial commitments or other donor expectations before serving. These expectations should be clearly listed in the board handbook and discussed during the recruitment process. For example, make sure trustees know if they need to sponsor a table at the annual gala. Include language that trustees are expected to lead by example and make your nonprofit one of their top philanthropic priorities for the year through direct giving or by recruiting gifts from others.
  2. Maximize Board Meetings: Board meetings should be used to elicit meaningful dialogue and foster discussions that are conducted in a strategic manner. Assess the maturity level of your board to determine if a consent agenda (a technique that groups committee and other business reports into one consolidated agenda item) is appropriate. This will allow more time for meaningful and collaborative dialogue.
  3. Diversity, Equality & Inclusion: Focus on topics and priorities that permeate our society to remain relevant. Make this topic a movement by committing to furthering goals relating to diversity, equality & inclusion in an authentic manner through events, programs and/or board selection.
  4. Board Education: Building and maintaining a highly effective board is achieved by sharing a vision and continually educating trustees on good governance. Each year should begin with a board orientation to on-board new trustees and reacquaint existing trustees with information about your organization, the board and your industry. Carving out time during each meeting for an educational topic or planning an annual retreat are other ways to increase your board’s effectiveness.
  5. Critical Relationships: Yes, we’re circling back on relationships but with a new slant – never underestimate the power of the Board Chair and Executive Director’s relationship! As many of you may have experienced, when the relationship is strong, everything works beautifully, but when this relationship is strained, it can be a painful experience. Think ahead about the dynamics during the nomination and selection process. Equally important, foster strong communication channels by committing to regular conversations and in-person meetings.

Highly effective boards take time and effort to build. Now is always a good time to start!


Janet Marsh brings strategic thinking, innovation, and passion to all she endeavors. She has a proven track record in developing highly effective teams by building on their strengths. Janet also has experience in board governance and has served on many nonprofit boards. She is a Director at Warren Whitney, holds a BBA in Finance and is a graduate of Leadership Center for Excellence in Arlington, VA. To learn more about board governance, email Janet at or call her at 804.282.9566.

November 2018 Newsletter: Make Your Board Great!

By | Board Development, Nonprofit

We understand the concept of “Level 5 Leaders” thanks to Jim Collins’ book Good To Great, one of the business classics.  Whether you are a nonprofit leader or a member of a Board, you may have wondered how to develop a “Level 5 Board”  – a group of mission-driven people, who put the success of the organization above egos, and who work to ensure the organization has the necessary resources to be strong.

Think about three guiding steps:

  1. Get the right people on the Board; a very “Jim Collins” first step.
  2. Give them the information they need.
  3. Make good use of the time they commit.

The Board Profile: Getting “the right people”

“The right people” are those who have the skills and experience the Board needs and who are engaged in the mission of the organization.  You might use your committee structure as a framework to evaluate:

  • What skills and experience do you need on each committee?
  • Which Board members will be rolling off in the next two to three years?
  • Will your strategic direction require new skills?

Many governance or nominating committees only work on new Board member cultivation during the (roughly) two months before they nominate new Board members.  Board cultivation should be a year-round effort that looks at a two to three year window of Board needs.  Your best Board members are already busy.  You may need to wait a few years for them to become available – or you may need to snag them sooner before they get engaged with a different organization.

Systems can help simplify.  If you bring in new Board members each year:

  • Bring them on at the same time in classes instead of spreading new members throughout the year.
  • Try to make classes roughly the same size so you won’t have a large number of Board members rotating off at the same time.
  • Balance your classes. For example, try to include one new Board member who is good at fundraising in each class along with a few others who fill other needs.

Finally, it’s also good to assemble a Board that brings diverse thinking and enjoys being together.

Board Information

This is a vital area that depends on your organization.  Here are the basics:

  • Board orientation – Help Board members understand your organization and reinforce expectations (which should have been discussed before they committed to joining the Board). It’s also a good opportunity for some social interaction to help Board members get to know each other.
  • Industry information – Help Board members understand industry norms, best practices, and innovation. Sharing articles between each board meeting is a good way to build this base of knowledge.
  • Your strategic plan – Remind Board members of where you want to go and the strategic imperatives required to get there. Newer Board members often need extra reinforcement of the strategic plan if they were not a part of creating it.
  • Your performance dashboard – Let Board members know what’s working well – or not so well. Don’t sugarcoat results; the Board needs the real picture.  Committees should dig into detailed information, but the whole Board should have the overall snapshot of the organization.

Use Time Wisely

Most Board members are happy to commit time to an organization they care about – as long as their time isn’t wasted.  Our step one referenced here pointed out that often the best board members are busy people; busy people hate to waste time.

  • Board meetings – Use Board meeting time to do things that can’t be done alone or in committees: Discuss successes, problems, new ideas, strategies, and other relevant topics.  End with appropriate takeaways when action is required.    Boards need to take certain actions.  Get those things done efficiently.  Don’t “report out” anything that can be read beforehand.
  • Committee meetings – These should be as well organized as Board meetings, with an agenda and material sent ahead of time. Each committee should have a charter and annual goals that tie to the strategic plan.  As appropriate, committees should prepare recommendations for the full Board’s consideration.
  • Social time – Using time wisely doesn’t mean “all work.” Smaller coffees and lunches or full Board social gatherings can help build relationships that make Board service extra rewarding.

Managing Board processes and relationships requires a significant time commitment from Board members, the CEO and other staff.  Building a Level 5 Board makes that time commitment worthwhile in pursuing the mission.


Katherine Whitney works closely with nonprofit organizations in Board governance, strategic planning and organizational development, including CEO searches.  She is a co-founder and director of Warren Whitney.  She has more than 25 years of experience in helping organizations reach their potential. Katherine has a passion for helping to strengthen non-profit organizations by building good business practices to support their missions.