November 2019: Board Governance – Plan for 2020

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.