Every successful nonprofit can trace its success back to a founder that had the foresight to assemble an effective board of directors. Good boards are not born, they are cultivated and grown.
There are boards, and then there are BOARDS. Good boards are not like a pile of cut lumber. They are more like branches of a tree, in that they constantly nurture the mother plant, evolve to meet changing conditions, and send out seeds or runners to stay alive and viable. Once a pile of lumber is used up, it's just gone. It's static, because the pile will only produce a pre-conceived structure. A tree keeps producing living tissue for decades, even centuries.
Developing good boards takes the skill of a master arborist. You have to know how to select the right seed stock, when to prune away the dead wood, and how to nurture it so it can produce the best fruit, before your nonprofit can collect a successful crop. Here are some of the indicators that your board is growing well.
A good board provides structure for the nonprofit.
It maintains a coherent mission-centered direction, imposes reasonable limitations on behavior and finances, and oversees and guides mission accomplishment. Board members are legally responsible for the conduct and financial integrity of the nonprofit, as well as the success of the mission.
Good boards participate financially.
Every board member should have some financial investment in the organization. That doesn't mean the board is, should, or can be the sole support of your NPO. It does mean that they should give an annual sum that shows they are personally invested in success. Grantors often ask for the amount each board member contributes annually. That amount should show real commitment relative to the size of the nonprofit and its mission. For very small or new nonprofits maybe that's a few hundred dollars a year for the whole board, while larger organizations might expect a minimum four-figure donation from each member. After all, if the board doesn't support their own organization, why should anyone else?
Good boards set goals and make decisions.
The board must have performance standards and clear goals for the organization. If the same action items are on every agenda, or there is no or little progress being made in achieving predetermined goals, the board must be willing and able to take corrective action.
Good boards understand the requirements of fundraising.
Every board member should understand how much needs to be raised, why it needs to be raised, and have a basic understanding of the process involved in soliciting funds.
Good boards get involved in fundraising.
There are many ways for the board to participate in fundraising. Perhaps they show up at events and pressers. Maybe they sign thank-you letters to donors. They can publicize the nonprofit through their business and personal connections. They can serve on phone lines at telethons. They may plan fundraising events. Whatever their contributions, they are active in the fundraising process at some point.
Good boards understand that there is a cost to fundraising.
"Free" money doesn't exist. Someone has to write the grants, research funding opportunities, attend events where there may be sympathetic prospective contributors, and manage the grants. Paper, printing, and distribution of fundraising documents or other marketing costs actual money. Controlling fundraising costs can't be limited to "if it costs money we ain't doin' it". Pick a reasonable percentage of the budget to devote to fundraising, monitor its ROI effectiveness, and accept that cost without complaint.
Good boards show up.
Good boards have strict meeting attendance and conduct policies and enforce them. The board chair must take attendance and educate, caution, and finally eliminate no-show, unreasonably disruptive or overly passive board members and recruit new ones that will take their responsibilities more seriously.
Good boards invite civil discussions on issues.
Boards should not be rubber-stamps for the founder, board chair or president. No member should feel that they can't offer a suggestion or request clarification of a point. On the other hand, a good board chair does not allow these discussions to degenerate into shouting matches. Meetings should be run under Robert's Rules of Order, and after a reasonable discussion period any new information or dissenting opinions should be either voted upon, tabled and considered in the next meeting, or assigned to a committee for further investigation.