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  • Writer's pictureAlison Finstad

One Critical (and Free) Resource for Underperforming Nonprofits

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

Stop the status quo and consider this.


Having grown up in a family plagued by food insecurity, Devon dreamed of starting a nonprofit to ensure all families in his community have enough food. He decided to create a food pantry. The first step to becoming recognized as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in many states is providing a list of board members, so Devon recruited two friends and a cousin to serve on his founding board.


Fast forward several years. The board is now only four people deep, term limits have not been honored because the board is spread too thin for anyone to rotate off, evaluating the Executive Director always falls to the bottom of the “to do” list so Devon hasn’t received any performance evaluations, money is tight so strategic planning is put on the back burner in favor of putting out fires, and Devon is wishing he had never started this organization in the first place.


If this sounds familiar, you are not alone.



Don’t Build from the Roof Down


Devon’s story is a fictitious example that represents scenarios we encounter regularly. Many times, a nonprofit’s financial problems, insufficient leadership, and underperforming programs can be traced back to the board. If the board is underperforming, the nonprofit will underperform, just about 100% of the time. The right board members may be in the wrong seats, the board may want to govern when they really need to roll up their sleeves and work, or they may not realize that they are legally and financially responsible for the organization and are not taking their roles seriously.


Enthusiastic founders are armed with passion and programmatic expertise, but do not necessarily understand board development best practices when they begin their roles. Executive Directors are often focused on programs and funding, and sometimes wish the board would simply know what to do. Too much focus on programs and funding, without a solidly functioning board of directors, is like putting a roof on a house that is poorly built. To build a solid nonprofit, the board of directors is the concrete foundation; the strategic plan is the first floor; the fund development plan is the second floor; and high-quality programming means high-quality building materials. Click here for an illustration.



Build from the Bottom Up


On the other hand, we encounter some boards that are truly taking the organization to the next level. What do those boards look like?


  • The right people are in the right seats. Each person has a skill set critical to the agency, robust community connections, or a passion for the cause and a willingness to work.

  • Everyone on the board has job descriptions, they have been recruited with realistic expectations, they have been properly onboarded, and they enjoy an annual planning and bonding retreat.

  • 100% of members on healthy boards make a significant annual donation to the organization they serve.

  • Their performance is evaluated annually, and they provide an annual performance evaluation to the Executive Director.

  • They maintain healthy boundaries with staff, providing resources and encouragement but staying out of the day-to-day operational decisions.

  • They honor term limits while viewing recruitment and leadership succession as an ongoing process.

  • Committee work takes place between meetings of the whole board.

If you would like help determining the health of your board, let us know - we have a tried-and-true process to assess the state of your current board and bring your board the next level. It's easier than you may think!


Also, here is a free, must-read tool from BoardSource called Recommended Governance Practices for nonprofits; we highly recommend nonprofit leadership takes a look.



Questions for Executive Directors and Board Chairs


If you believe your board may be underperforming, here is a free resource for you: key questions to ask regarding your board. The answers will put you on a path to building a stronger foundation.


  1. Do the current board members have the right skill sets and personal attributes? Are there any critical skill sets or attributes missing?

  2. When new board members were recruited, were they provided with a reasonable estimate of the time board work would take?

  3. Did the board members each receive a job description?

  4. Were board members trained and welcomed with an onboarding or orientation process?

  5. Were they asked to read and understand the bylaws?

  6. Is there an annual retreat with a focus on both strategic thinking as well as getting to know one another personally (and spouses, family if possible)?

  7. Has the board engaged in any strategic planning in the last three years?

  8. Are the organization’s strategic priorities reflected in the budget?

  9. Are board members aware of and willing to fulfill their responsibilities related to fundraising and expanding the organization’s network?

  10. Are term limits honored?

  11. Are board meeting agendas focused on issues of strategic importance?

  12. Is the governance or nominating committee regularly cultivating new board members?

  13. Is the Executive Director evaluated annually?

  14. Does the board regularly assess its own performance?


We Are Here for You


If several of your answers are “no” or “I don’t know”, please contact us for a free conversation to help put you on the right track. The future of your organization depends on it.

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