“Well, it’s time to elect new officers since two of our four current officers are rotating off the board!”
“Anyone want to step up to the plate this year?”
… Even louder SILENCE.
“Ok, it’s really important that we elect a new chair and vice-chair tonight, and hopefully, our current treasurer and secretary will agree to stay on in their role another year since no one else has volunteered. Come on…anyone? Bob? Ana? What about you Sara? Anybody?”
Does this conversation feel familiar?
Are you the concerned board leader struggling to fill open seats on your Executive Committee, or the board member who tentatively raised your hand because no one else would?
You are not alone. In fact, 77% of nonprofits today admit that they do not have a clear plan for succession.
This trend is concerning because the strength of the board’s leadership directly impacts both the current and long-term sustainability and success of the organization.
Most nonprofit boards refer to their elected officers as the “Executive Committee.” Traditionally this includes the chair (or president), vice-chair (or vice-president), treasurer, and secretary.
If your organization finds itself scrambling to fill seats with qualified and willing leaders, consider the following five intentional steps to building your Executive Committee:
- ESTABLISH STRATEGIC TERM LIMITS
If your board currently approves board members for one-year terms, it might be time to consider changing your bylaws. New board members need ample time to “learn their role” and fully engage. They need even longer to feel comfortable taking on a leadership role. By voting in board members for a one-year term, the organization places itself in the precarious position of having an ever-changing board. Even if board members have the opportunity to “renew” after one year, the structure itself does not lend itself to a healthy cycle of leadership.
Consider a reasonable, multi-year term limit with the opportunity to renew once before taking a mandatory one-year “break” from the board.
According to a BoardSource survey, “nearly three-quarters of the respondents reported using three-year terms, with a maximum of two terms.”
Three-year board terms are ideal because they establish a strategic structure for leadership development. In year one, new board members can learn more about the organization’s mission and governance process. In year two, they have the opportunity to engage in more leadership roles, perhaps as a committee chair, vice-chair, or special events coordinator. By year three, your board ideally should have groomed members who are equipped and willing to serve on the Executive Committee or in other key leadership positions.
- COMMUNICATE LEADERSHIP OPPORTUNITIES IN YOUR RECRUITMENT PROCESS.
Remember the adage, “you reap what you sow.” Never “sell” a board seat with a phrase such as “It’s not that hard… or…all you have to do is attend meetings…or we will just be happy to have you on the board to share your ideas.” If you plant the idea that your organization accepts board members who are minimally engaged, you will reap an inactive and unenthused board.
Your recruitment process is the first critical step in securing your organization’s future!
Focus on quality over quantity and avoid filling seats with warm bodies. As you identify prospective board members, be sure to engage candidates in honest conversations about their interests, availability, and willingness to assume leadership roles during their tenure on the board.
- CLARIFY EXPECTATIONS FOR BOARD ENGAGEMENT
Would you ever hire a new CEO for your “for-profit” business without providing them with a detailed job description, measurable benchmarks for production/sales, or both short-term and long-term end goals?
Every board member should know what is expected of them, no matter which seat they occupy at the table. In addition to outlining the job description for your board as a whole, be sure to outline and approve written job descriptions for each officer position. Then, take it a step further and outline key roles and responsibilities of the Executive Committee as a major decision-making party. The Executive Committee work hand in hand with the Executive Director and to do so, clarity, transparency, and effective communication is paramount. For this reason, the Executive Committee job description might also provide guidance on how to appropriately interact with the organization’s Executive Director or lead staff.
Provide current job descriptions to your team as well as a list of key expectations for board engagement. Check out Funding For Good’s FREE sample templates for board member job descriptions here.
Sharing written job descriptions for every position on the board ensures that everyone understands leadership functions and that they don’t volunteer or get “voluntold” for a vague Executive Committee role!
- EDUCATE AND EMPOWER
Now that you have outlined job roles, responsibilities, and expectations in writing…it is time to ENGAGE and EMPOWER your leadership team.
Your orientation process should provide a comprehensive approach to providing information, opportunities, and support to new board members. This experience should not be passive, but rather allow them to share what role they can see themselves filling in the upcoming years. Experienced board leaders should be stepping up to mentor new members. Specifically, the Executive Committee members should be intentional in their efforts to identify a qualified successor, determine their interest and availability, and prepare them for their future role.
- Develop and Approve a Strategic Plan
It is nearly impossible for an Executive Committee to be effective leaders without an approved strategic plan.
Would you ever get on a plane or a boat without knowing where you are going? Absolutely not. When you get on board, you are confident that the pilot and you are heading to a predetermined destination. There might be some unavoidable delays, but at the end of the day, you trust that the pilot, the co-pilot, and the cabin crew are doing their best to get you safely and swiftly to your destination.
Your community, staff, and board members need to share the same confidence in your organization’s Executive Committee. While the entire board must participate in the strategic planning process, members of the Executive Committee bear a greater burden in helping the organization achieve its mission and vision.
The most effective strategic plans include a capacity-building component that outlines board development. Strategies to strengthen and grow a diverse board might include the creation of a board development committee and board recruitment and retention policy.
At the end of the day, it is not enough to simply focus on “building the board.” Organizations must also focus on grooming leaders who are willing and ready to serve as an officer and key voice on the Executive Committee.