Setting Up a Working Board of Directors for Your Startup Nonprofit Organization

by Danielle Bloom

4 min read

A board of directors is essential for most nonprofit organizations. This group sets goals for the organization and helps to keep it running. When you are first getting started or if your organization is small, you need a working board of directors in particular.

Governing vs. Working Boards

Working boards exist alongside of governing boards, and it’s important to understand the differences between these two major categories. As a general rule of thumb, working boards consist of board members who do the work of the organization. This includes administrative tasks and fundraising, but it also includes rolling up sleeves and doing mission work. Governing boards, in contrast, focus on governing nonprofits. Rather than doing administrative work, fundraising, and mission work, these board members oversee and guide these activities. To explain, imagine your nonprofit brings meals to seniors. Members of a working board are likely to prepare, pack, and deliver meals. In contrast, the members of a governing board are more likely to come up with approaches to find volunteers, create community outreach programs to find seniors who need food, and oversee the financial side of things.

Overlap Between Boards

In reality, governing boards and working boards don’t exist as polar opposites. Rather, there is a lot of overlap between these two types of boards. As individuals, the members of a governing board may opt to do volunteer work for the nonprofit organization; that work just isn’t the board’s main focus. Similarly, all nonprofits need governing, and as a result, working boards often govern the organization as well as do various types of work for the organization.

Critical Role of Working Boards

For large nonprofits, a governing board is essential. In contrast, small nonprofits usually can’t survive without board members being actively involved. When your organization is getting started, you need a working board. These individuals form the backbone of your organization, and they can be critical to your success. There are key advantages to working boards. Namely, when your board members are actively involved in the grassroots efforts of your organization, they see with their own eyes what is happening. This puts them in a more effective position to guide the organization to future growth.

Expectations

When choosing members for your working board of directors, you want to be upfront about your expectations, and make sure the new members realize what you expect from them. For example, someone on a governing board of directors may only need to go to meetings once a month. In contrast, members of a working board of directors typically need to commit to meetings as well as regular volunteer time with the organization.

Diversity in Your Working Board of Directors

Because your board of directors is going to be actively involved in the growth of your organization, you want to focus on creating a board with a lot of skills diversity. For example, if you have a person who’s ready and able to handle the marketing and another individual who’s experienced in fundraising, you may want to look for additional board members who are experienced with accounting, volunteer scheduling, or other necessary skills. Skills aren’t the only place where a working board needs diversity. You may also want to consider the personalities of each of your members. Try to keep an eye out for members with personality traits that will complement each other. For example, someone who is super excited and full of ideas can be a huge asset during brainstorming sessions. That said, you also need a board member who tends to plan ahead and is detail-oriented. Those traits complement each other.

Working Board By-laws

To keep things running smoothly, you may want to establish by-laws for your working board. The rules should specify how many people are on the board and how votes work. For example, you may want to specify that certain issues require a simple majority vote while other issues require a two-thirds majority to pass. You should also specify the length of each board member’s term; some nonprofits use unlimited terms but others prefer to have two-year terms to keep the board fresh. You may also want to specify how often the organization has meetings and the process for appointing chairpeople. If you ultimately decide to change to a governing board, you may need to update your by-laws The by-laws for both boards cover similar issues, but to optimize the functioning of your board, you may want to fine-tune the rules as the overall purpose of your board changes.

Organizing Meetings for Working Boards

Making board meetings efficient is almost always challenging, but if you want your nonprofit to thrive, it’s essential to keep meetings on track. There are a number of strategies that can help, from setting an agenda with time limits to putting an effective facilitator in charge of the meeting. With working boards, you have the additional challenge of including both topics related to governing and working. Consider prioritizing governing and focusing on it at the beginning of your working board meetings. Without strong governorship, it’s nearly impossible to adopt a plan to move your organization forward. Then, move onto the working aspect of the board. For example, after covering governing issues, you could have each member of the board give an update on the area of the nonprofit where he or she serves. A working board is a group of active volunteers who help with several aspects of your nonprofit. Ideally, you need to choose these members carefully because they play a central role in your success. For the best results, diversity and clear expectations for the board are essential.

References & Resources

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