November 2018 Newsletter: Make Your Board Great!

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.