Tips for Improving Board Effectiveness

Organizational Management November 07, 2011

Lori Halley

By Lori Halley

The Board of Directors of any association, non-profit or club is pivital to the organization's success. So how can you ensure the Board is functioning as efficiently as possible?

I recently watched one of the Movie Mondays videos (from 501 Videos) which offered “A New Look for Board Meetings.” In this short but informative video, Brenda B. Asare of The Alford Group offers some tips on running effective board meetings that engage their members. Asare notes that many boards spend a lot of their time looking back instead of moving forward, and offers several practical ideas — such as sending out well thought-out agendas and “homework” materials — to improve meeting efficiency. She also suggests incorporating Board meeting evaluation tools to improve meeting effectiveness as well as Board member participation and engagement.

This video struck a chord with me, since back in my first non-profit job, I was secretary to the Board of Directors of an Association. While it was a national association with many active committees, it was a very small-staff organization (we all wore many hats!). It was my job to prepare board materials and minutes. I had to carefully collect and send out background materials for each agenda item that would be addressed to ensure the effective use of our busy, high-profile professional board members’ time. While it sounds simple now, it was a lot of hard work, but it meant that the Board’s time was well-spent and the Association’s issues were moved forward at each meeting.

Read More: 7 Secrets For Successful Board Meetings

Tips for Working Boards:

Of course, in an all-volunteer organization, there is no staff available to prepare for, coordinate or follow-up on Board meetings. This means that the Board Chair and members need to take a more active role in agenda development, meeting preparation and evaluation.

When I hosted the Nonprofit Blog Carnival last month, I asked bloggers to send me posts on improving the volunteer experience. Gayle Gifford (The Butterfly Effect blog) submitted a post: “Helping working boards work better. Here’s a start.”  While this post wasn't included in the Blog Carnival, Gayle agreed to share it with Wild Apricot blog readers.

Here are Gayle’s "tips to help all volunteer boards accomplish important administrative and fundraising tasks:"

1. Assign each board member and each committee a concrete goal to achieve.

You’ve got real work to accomplish — money to raise, memberships to renew, programs to deliver.

So don’t hand over fuzzy assignments to people or committees. If you need the fundraising committee to raise $25,000, make that their assignment. If you’ve got five open slots on the board, make sure that the nominations committee is given the task of finding five excellent new board members.

In working boards, never recruit board members “at-large.” Instead, recruit every board member for a purpose and give them an assignment… and by that I mean a significant outcome they are responsible for delivering.

2. Stop dumping everything on the board president… and conversely, board presidents please ask for help.

Too frequently, all of the critical jobs in an all volunteer organization default to the board president.

Because we ask our presidents to be super humans, they don’t have the time to define volunteer jobs, find recruits or structure committee assignments. So they find it easier to “do it myself.’ How often have you heard that said! (I’ve even said it)

So, I find that a board governance committee is a great asset even in an all volunteer organization. Think of that committee as the board’s human resource department. Share with them the responsibility of building a great board… and great committee volunteers.

3. Make volunteer jobs manageable.

The “other-duties-as-assigned” catch-all is okay if you paying staff. But it’s virtually impossible to recruit unpaid volunteers to such open ended assignments.

Here’s an example. If you are chairing a conference committee, recruit an able team and split up the work. Make one person responsible for recruiting the speakers, someone else responsible for booking the facilities, another person for day-of logistics. I’ll bet that after two or three organizing meetings, your committee won’t even need to meet face-to-face. You can hold phone or email meetings to check in that everyone is on track.

4. Recruit volunteers who have technical expertise, high standards of personal responsibility and can manage themselves.

All-volunteer boards can’t afford too many volunteers who need a lot of handholding. That’s not to say that you don’t need to train new people to get them off to a good start (which is where committees come in) but make sure that the most important outcomes go to people you know will get the job done. It is okay to set high expectations and not to settle for any warm body.

Read More: How To Build an Effective Nonprofit Board: The Complete Guide

5. Don’t assume that administrative, finance and fundraising tasks are never fun.

One of our problems in finding recruits is that we start out with the idea that these are loathsome tasks. And we recruit with that idea in mind.

But lots of people make a living — one they even enjoy — doing these jobs. Some are unique to nonprofits but others may be comparable to the for-profit sector. You’ll just need to train your volunteers in the special cultural and legal requirements of nonprofits.

6. Oh yes, have fun. And please thank your volunteers.

No one wants to keep coming back to an organization that doesn’t appreciate their help. Or where every task feels like a terrible burden. Make sure to take the time to socialize, celebrate and acknowledge the great work that you are doing.

We’d like to hear from you! Do you have any tips that have helped improve your Board’s effectiveness? Please share your thoughts in our comments below. 


There are a number of resources available that offer advice and tips for Boards – here are a few that we’ve found on the web:

Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.


    I love your tip that says: assign each board member a task, in every organization, we cant rely all of the task to the leader, every member has a participation to have a successful project.
  • Lori Halley

    Lori Halley:
    Thanks Milany: I agree, it's all about effective collaboration!
  • Diana Bumstead:
    Alberta's Resource Centre for Voluntary Organizations and Alberta's Board Development program (simply google those terms) also have excellent resources on board development.

    Super ideas in the article - very concrete


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