What Does Better Mean?

A nonprofit board is a team of leaders.  The board is responsible for casting a vision, creating the strategy that will fulfill the vision, developing a strategic plan that follows the strategy and actualizes the vision, setting policies that will guide the activities of the nonprofit, and monitoring indicators that confirm the plan is unfolding as expected.

When boards fulfill their responsibilities, nonprofits thrive.  They have admirable outcomes (meaningful, measurable, and durable changes in their clients’ lives), healthy financial trends, and sustainability.  In addition, they have a reputation for excellence, strong community support, and their board is known and respected for its decision-making.

Unfortunately, the number of thriving nonprofits is low.  There are many who are just surviving and many who are struggling.  The thriving nonprofits are a very diverse group.  They are found in almost every sector, geographic region, and with varied histories.  They also come in all sizes.  They are all growing.

What separates the thriving from the others are the board members.  Who the board members are is unimportant.  What is important is the perspective board members bring to the meetings.

Ask any board member the following question and you will learn about the condition of their nonprofit:

What will it take to make your nonprofit better?

When a nonprofit is surviving or struggling, the answer to the question almost always revolves around money, finances, or donations.  Their answers suggest they believe that their nonprofits are evaluated and supported based upon self-management and financial strength.  They seem to think that success and survival are assured if there are sufficient funds.

Success and sustainability depend on what a nonprofit does.  When it measures its success based upon the success of its clients, its impact on its community, and the fulfillment of its mission, then money, financial strength, donors, and support in all forms are the collateral benefits. Of course, it must report its success in ways its community understands and values.

When the nonprofit is thriving, the answers usually revolve around the programing, clients, community impact, and mission.  The board members’ actions suggest they believe their nonprofit is evaluated based upon its benefit to the clients and value to the community.

While every nonprofit board member acknowledges that nonprofits exist for the benefit of others, the majority of board members of thriving nonprofits are  externally focused (they know their job is to ensure others receive the benefits the mission was envisioned to deliver).  The board members on the non-thriving boards usually focus on internal issues.  The internal issues are the staff’s responsibility.  By focusing on what the staff is responsible for, those boards give their true responsibilities insufficient time and their nonprofits are unable to live up to their full potential.

Next Step:

Ask your board to evaluate how it determines what it will take to make your nonprofit better

Improve your evaluation process and the way your board reports success to your supporters

Use the change in supporter recruitment, retention, and generosity to determine your how effectively you have changed the board’s thinking about success and communications of your success

Part of making the changes will be to educate your supporters about the changes.  They have become accustom to your current process.  They will need to know why you are making the change and why it is better for them and the mission.

Internal measures are easy to report.  Every organization gathers internal data on a regular bases.  External data is harder to collect and many nonprofits rarely collect the data but almost every nonprofit collects anecdotes about their external success.  Place an emphasis on using more external data to reinforce your external anecdotes. The frequency and durability of your success is as compelling as your anecdotes.

Reorienting your board members pays big dividends.  The dividends are both internal (improved financial performance, donor loyalty, donor generosity, and sustainability) and external (more community support, more durable client outcomes, higher client success rates, and better reputation for your nonprofit and its board members).

Take It Further:

Ask your board development committee to recruit board members who understand your board’s definition of success

Ask your board development committee to help your board members develop an external focus

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