Best Practices for the Board
Because board members are legally in charge of the organization, nonprofits are encouraged to follow best practices in their selection and management.
Create a board that responds to the needs of the organization
Aim for a diverse group that includes individuals with a range of skills (depending upon the needs of your organization, it may be helpful to have a lawyer, accountant, small business owner, and/or someone with marketing or human resource experience). It is often a good idea to include people who use your nonprofit’s services (client / customer feedback can be very useful) in addition to some well-connected, high profile community members (who can be helpful with fundraising). Everyone on the board should be committed to the mission of the organization and willing to give time and/or resources.
Meet at a set time.
Whether your board meets on a monthly or quarterly basis, it is important to determine a consistent meeting time (for example, 5:30 – 7:00pm every second Thursday) and to stick to it. This allows members to plan ahead, encourages consistent attendance, and eliminates time wasted seeking a date that works for everyone.
Replace board members that regularly miss meetings
Everyone occasionally has schedule conflicts, but persistently absent board members often lack necessary information to make good decisions, waste the group’s time by requiring a rehash of previous discussions and set a bad example for their fellow board members.
Provide adequate information (and enough time to review)
Although most board members are busy people, they also need to be provided with adequate information to make good decisions about issues related to the organization. Sending out board packets (either hard copies or via email) a few days before the board meeting is a good way to distribute this information, ensure there is time to review it while also providing a helpful meeting reminder. To help make sure these packets are actually read, focus on the 3 Is – information that is important (necessary for making an upcoming decision), informative (provides useful background about the organization or a particular issue), or inflammatory (poses a threat to the organization).
In addition to receiving relevant information, board members should feel comfortable asking questions about this information – to clarify issues that are unclear, gain understanding about the reasoning behind day-to-day decisions made by staff, and identify potential areas of conflict or future concern. The executive director, board chair and/or staff reaction to board member questions will send a critical message to the board about the acceptability of raising issues for discussion. Keep in mind – these conversations may be unpleasant or time-consuming, but shutting them down or repeatedly postponing them is likely to only make the eventual confrontation worse.
Keep meeting minutes
Aside from the legal protection that meeting documentation provides, good records create a historical record for the organization and can be very helpful for reconstructing how and why particular decisions were made. Minutes should include the date, names of people in attendance and a summary of all decisions made.
Avoid conflicts of interest (or even the appearance of conflict)
Because nonprofit board members are expected to not use their position for personal gain, it is important to take steps to minimize even the appearance of inappropriate behavior. Board members should acknowledge in writing any potential conflicts of interest they have related to nonprofit work (for example, if they own or are related to someone who owns a business the nonprofit may hire). Recognition of the conflict of interest and steps taken to mitigate it (such as having the involved board member leave the room during discussion, obtaining alternative bids and/or asking the individual to refrain from voting on the issue) should be included in the meeting minutes.
Take issues of confidentiality seriously
As a general rule of thumb, board members should not share any information about the organization’s finances or activities that isn’t already available to the public through other sources (such as the website, newsletter or annual report). Sharing confidential information (especially related to human resource issues) can have legal implications for both the board member and the organization.