Creating the 21st Century Board

Editor’s note: Over the next two weeks, we’ll feature posts around the final convening of our Chief Executive Program, The Summit at Sundance. We invite you to participate in an online discussion of four major issues facing the cultural field. In this post, Alorie Clark introduces the second problem statement.

Governance is a certainly a hot topic for the nonprofit sector. Many organizations are finding that the traditional governance model isn’t working so well, sometimes leading to more stress than success. When considering all that affects and contributes to the success of a nonprofit board, how does an organization achieve effective governance?

Problem to solve: Create the 21st century board.

Within the conversation of nonprofit governance, there are typically four main areas of consideration:

  1. Board engagement: How much should the board be involved in operations? How often should the board meet? What should be reported at the meetings? Most executives hope to report enough to their board to keep them engaged and interested in the work of the organization, but not so much where they inhibit the executive’s ability to work effectively and with authority. This conflict can sometimes leave board members uninformed, uninterested and bored. In Governance as Leadership, Richard Chait suggests reframing their duties as a way to keep them engaged, using three governance modes: fiduciary, strategic and generative.
  2. Fundraising is also a big issue in nonprofit governance. Should a board be required to fundraise? Many boards have a “give or get” policy. But some organizations are struggling with how well this works. Should all board members have the same fundraising requirement? How does this limit the pool for potential board members?
  3. Roles and Functions: The issues of engagement and fundraising can be addressed once a board becomes clear about its function in relation to the organization, and the role it aims to serve. What size board does your organization need? Should all board members have a governing or fundraising responsibility? How can the expertise on the board be maximized? Are members serving in roles that are interesting to them?   Michael Klausner & Jonathan Small suggest “Failing to Govern?” (SSIR, 2005) that all board members should not be asked or expected to perform the same roles, suggesting instead a “Bifurcated Board.”
  4. Diversity: Once a board clarifies its function and members’ roles, it can determine where they are lacking in terms of membership, and who it needs to help further the mission of the organization. A board should also assess if the community they are serving is reflected on their board. Diversity will look different for each board, and each organization should determine what role diversity should play in its governance. Is it adding someone of a different race? A different background? Or neighboring community?

How would you address these aspects of governance?  Next week, leaders from The Chief Executive program will investigate what will make take governance to the next level in the 21st century, and will share their thoughts here on Field Notes. We invite you to join the conversation.


  1. says

    In terms of fundraising I do believe in the “give or get” policy. It’s a way to measure accountability from the board. It’s the responsibility of the nonprofit to train the board on fundraising because some members may have the network but are clueless or uncomfortable with the “ask”. Our requirement is that all board members serve on a board committee. This ensures engagement with the organization. As far as governance, no, all board members shouldn’t be expected to perform the same way. Some will be more engaged than others while some will have more community leverage. It depends on the size, need, and goals of the organization.

  2. says

    Great food for thought but actually if you are a nonprofit exec or board member and you aren’t discussing and working on this already, you’re not doing your job.

    I totally agree with Regina and add that one of the fundamental questions foundation funders ask is “What’s your board giving experience?” The answer to this question can greatly impact their investment in your organization.

    Thanks for the always useful and thoughtful content!

  3. says

    Give, get or barter are three ways to give, and every board member should be there to support the organization and its mission. In the 80’s I took over a stumbling organization that was in debt, had little earned income and a board that mostly thought it was enough to just lend their name to the board list.

    It took a year of presenting a different income generating idea every month for them to wrestle with, but the Board President was savvy and led the discussions to consensus and implementation despite naysayers. Once finance had been stabilized we turned to building a “prudent” reserve while looking at a new way to serve our constituents every month. The fact that Board Members knew there would be an interesting discussion about something new at every meeting gave us close to 90% attendance and by the end of a decade, almost every one making a financial contribution.

    Putting an organization on a solid footing is the most important role of both the Board and its paid staff, and today – some 40 years since its founding – it is a rock of the community it serves. ARTS Boston is an umbrella arts service organization that outlasted several others in the region. And I watch it with fatherly care even after having moved on to other things a long time ago.

  4. Alorie Clark says

    I appreciate all of the insightful comments on this post. While I do agree the “give or get” policy is a way to measure accountability, I think it can sometimes limit the pool of prospective board members. As an emerging leader and new board member, I have a lot to offer, but I don’t have the same wealthy connections as a more seasoned professional. While my income limits the amount I can donate, I can compensate with what I offer in my time, enthusiasm, insight and passion. Nonprofits should help board members feel more comfortable in fundraising, but the board should also recognize every member’s strengths and interests, and that may or may not be in the fundraising capacity. If a “give or get” policy is implemented, it may be a good idea to adjust the requirement based on the individual’s capacity. I agree that inquiring about the board’s giving experience prior to setting these policies is a great idea.


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