By Regenia Bailey / Guest Editorial
One of the most challenging responsibilities of a nonprofit board is providing guidance and oversight to the organization’s programs and services.
Programs are the primary focus of the organization’s staff. To exercise its roles and responsibilities, the board must concern itself with the efficiency and effectiveness of those programs. So how does the board exercise its program oversight responsibility without straying into operational or management territory?
Ensure the mission connection
A central part of the board’s responsibility is ensuring that the programs and activities advance the goals of the organization. Board members need not understand all the intricacies of the programs, but they must be able to describe how the programs support the organization’s fundamental purpose.
In simple terms, this means understanding a program’s ‘so that’ equation: “We do X so that Y happens. Y moves us closer to our mission.”
For example, if the nonprofit’s mission is to ensure that children have reading skills that match their grade levels, the ‘so that’ equation might be: “We have a program to provide reading mentors for second graders so that they improve their reading skills. Their improvement in reading skills moves us closer to our mission of having all children read at grade level.”
When members understand how to describe the connection between activities and the organization’s mission and goals, it is more likely that they will be able to see when this link is tenuous. The board can then use its oversight responsibility to work with staff to bring these disconnected activities into mission alignment or eliminate them.
Even the best designed programs are ineffective if they occur infrequently or are poorly attended. As part of overseeing programs, the board should regularly monitor activity metrics, such as program frequency and participation. This helps the board and staff set shared goals regarding program activities, and work to ensure that the organization is meeting community needs.
The board must also monitor efficiencies and understand the costs per participant for each of the organization’s programs. This is an aspect of budget planning, but few boards understand their organization’s program costs at this level of detail. It may be unnerving to some to analyze programs in this way, but it can lead to a greater understanding of how to best deploy organizational resources efficiently.
In addition to monitoring program efficiencies, the board must also monitor program effectiveness. Measuring outcomes enables the organization to track its progress toward its mission. Tracking outcomes is notoriously difficult; the board and staff must develop a shared understanding of desired program outcomes and indicators for these. As the board monitors outcomes, members can see and describe the impact the organization is having in the community.
Keep it strategic
As with all its responsibilities, the board must be careful not to cross into the management or operational realm when making decisions about the organization’s programs. The board’s role in program oversight is a strategic one. Its job is to ensure that the organization’s programs and activities are linked to its mission to make good use of the organization’s resources, and to work toward shared, articulated organizational goals that impact the community.
Although it can be challenging for the board (and perhaps unsettling for the staff) to exercise its responsibilities in program oversight, the board should not shy away from doing so. Fulfilling this responsibility enables board members to have a deeper understanding of the organization’s programs and helps them do a better job of fulfilling their other board responsibilities. It also builds a stronger board commitment to the organization’s mission and work, as members see and understand the impact that the organization is having in the community.
Regenia Bailey is a consultant and coach to nonprofits and small businesses at her firm, the Bailey Leadership Initiative. She teaches business courses at Kirkwood Community College. For more information, visit www.baileyleadershipinitiative.com.