Each piece of nonprofit board is important

By John Langhorne and Nancy Quellhorst / Guest Editorial

Early in our careers, mentors suggested we join nonprofit boards to gain governance experience, understand the nature of management and contribute to the community. This is a recommendation often made in leadership development programs and is particularly valuable for people in the public and private sectors.

In an earlier article, www.corridorbusiness.com/consulting/organizations-that-exist-to-do-good/, we reviewed the unique aspects of nonprofits, including their core mission of “doing good” and their position in the American economy between the for-profit ( to create wealth) and public (to protect and serve) sectors. This column will consider the appropriate behaviors that define a successful board director and share the attributes of exceptional board chairs.

Nonprofits resemble an hourglass, with the board at the top, the staff and programs at the bottom and everything flowing through the executive director/president. The board determines the organization’s mission, selects, evaluates and supports the executive director or president and monitors financial resources and programming. The board owns the corporation and has the responsibilities and liabilities of ownership. These should not be taken lightly.

The executive director/president manages the operations and staff, serves as the public face of the organization and assures that the board chair and owners are well informed and involved. The staff carries out the mission of the organization. It is important that board members and the executive director/president respect these roles. An easy way to remember this is the board determines what needs to be done and the executive director and staff determines how to do it and executes.

Boards are led by an executive committee, which includes the chair, vice chair, treasurer, secretary and often the past chair (to assure continuity). Board meetings are led by the board chair and if well-run, extend from 60 to 90 minutes. New board members are often oriented in advance and provided with a packet of information including bylaws, budget and minutes from previous board meetings.

Effective board members arrive well-prepared for meetings, having read the agenda and supporting materials. New board members should introduce themselves to board colleagues and spend the first several meetings observing and listening to develop an understanding of the organization and meeting tenor. The executive director/president can provide insight into how board members can best contribute to the organization.

High-functioning boards are led by board chairs who are committed to the organization, support the executive director/president and encourage board members to serve as diplomats for the organization. Exemplary board chairs look for opportunities to share resources with the organization and allow the executive director/president to determine how they should be used. Board chairs may offer expertise from professionals within their organization, or technical tools such as program management software or fundraising instruments.

Board service broadens skills while enhancing the community, providing a win-win for building careers and improving the area. Over several years, volunteerism with the organization may unfold in this fashion. A new board member may become conversant with a monthly financial statement, learn about the services and observe the dynamics of effective meetings. As she becomes more capable, she may join a committee such as finance, human resources, fundraising or program development, where you can make a larger contribution and perhaps become a committee chair and improve your meeting management skills. Should she be inclined to take a larger leadership role, she may be invited to join the executive committee and eventually become the chair of the board.

Consider some fundamental aspects of nonprofit organizations. The most important, and as with all types of organizations, is the quality of the executive director/president. There is substantial support for this tenet with Jim Collins’ Good To Great being one of the more recent compelling studies.

We have personally watched the organizations succeed with effective leaders and others destroyed by poor executives.

Nonprofits function best when boards, executive directors/presidents and staff respect boundaries and board members are committed to the organization. The selection of board members is critical to the success of the nonprofit. Find a fine organization with a mission you support and begin a journey of discovery and contribution.



John Langhorne is owner and principal of Langhorne Associates, www.langhorneassociates. His most recent book is Beyond IQ: Practical Steps To Find the Best You is available digitally at Amazon.


Nancy Quellhorst is president and CEO of the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce. She can be reached at (319) 337-9637.