Creating Social Value Blog / Social Innovation

Insights from the Inside: Building a High Functioning Board

This post is part of a series providing a road map for real world operational management of non-profits and social enterprises. The author, Gene Miller, has held a variety of high-stakes leadership positions in diverse industries through crisis periods and great successes. This series shares her results-based approach, presenting practical guides for how to get things done. She can be reached at

Board Wordle

When it comes to boards of not for profits and social enterprises, in the final analysis, boards are all about money, power and influence. Yes there are desired skills, personality fits with the CEO, diversity needed, and guidance to be offered. But make no mistake, it’s who serves and what they bring to the party that defines the organization in many ways. This includes everything from its market perception to its future ability to attract high caliber board leadership.

Far too many start up organizations ask friends and family to serve as directors. RESIST this approach as it makes for immense complications down the road. The board needs to have real passion for their work (not be doing a favor to the founder). It’s important that their serving “capitalizes on their own enlightened self interest” and they need to ready to bring their (tangible and/or intangible) resources to the table, depending on the charter. This can be amazingly powerful…a board member in love with and personally benefitting from the assignment in some manner, while at the same time, being committed to making significant contribution.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, how in the world do you build a high caliber and high functioning board?

Step 1: Define board roles and responsibilities, to include financial expectations (if a not for profit), as well as the specific board committees role required assignments such as audit, institutional advancement and governance etc.

Step 2: Decide the portfolio of skills you seek at the board level for example legal, strategic/venture philanthropy, high level finance, legislative influence, and so forth.

Step 3: Determine demographic and social diversity needed.

Step 4 : Set up a process for identifying and then approaching candidates.

I am pretty sure nobody does step 4 better than Laura Gassner Otting, President of the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group. She suggests you set up a couple of breakfast and lunches to invite the most influential leaders in your universe, such as strategic funders, venture capitalists, CEO’s, etc for a board brainstorming session together. The pitch goes like this:

Ms Major Player, could you please come to a one hour lunch to help identify board candidates for our enterprise and WE PROMISE WE WON’T ASK YOU TO SERVE OR ASK YOU FOR $? It’s your strategic advice we seek because your leadership is among the most impactful and far reaching in the community.

Think about how brilliant this approach is…

  • You’ve paid them the highest of compliments about their role in the community.
  • They are assured to walk away without an ask for them personally.
  • To kick off the meeting, the CEO/ED gets to give a 10 minute profile of the org (free sales pitch to the big guns that can have all sorts of future benefits.)
  • With good facilitation, you can actually get their competitive juices flowing about who can suggest the best candidate.
  • And finally, if they put forth a great name, they are likely to make the introduction.

Suggest you think big and aim high. Assuming the merit of your organization, with the right process you can attract your dream board that will be the envy of the entrepreneur community!

TACTICAL TAKEAWAY: Develop a board process. Determine responsibilities of the board as well as the profile/skills you seek. Consider this one of the most important sales pitches for your organization (because it is). Put the process in motion and make it happen.