How many of us have joined a nonprofit board and felt clueless initially, assuming things would change over time? And a year later, we were still wondering how best to contribute in our role!

It’s fairly typical unfortunately.

This can lead to frustration on the part of staff members who observe – rightly – that board members are inactive and disengaged.

So what’s the real issue?

Part of the problem is communication. Board service means something different to volunteers and staff. Often, volunteers don’t understand the extent of their commitment. They skip meetings and miss obligations simply because they are unaware of expectations or lack an understanding of their role.

Additionally, staff members may underestimate the board’s role and responsibility in guiding their mission. They miss opportunities to educate and engage these leaders in meaningful ways.

How do we address this issue? It’s simple: executive directors and board chairs must commit to a systematic and regular program of onboarding and educating their board members.

This is not a one-time event. It’s a culture of internal engagement that must be nurtured. Organizations that commit to cultivating their board members enjoy the benefits that only an “evolved” board can provide: strategic focus, meaningful engagement and active contributions toward the organization’s greatest needs.


An evolved board starts with recruitment and mutually agreed upon commitments.

We’ve all done it, waited until the last minute to recruit new board members to fill a vacant seat. Then what happens? We ask our board members whom they know and fill the seat.

We say, “Oh you won’t have to do much” and “We don’t meet very often,” and then we wonder why activity is lackluster.

Pro tip: Make board recruitment a year-round activity. Keep a short list of dynamic people and encourage others to do the same. Talk about potential candidates at least quarterly, and offer committee membership to cultivate their interest.


An evolved board is immersed in the mission.

Your list of names of potential board members should include people familiar with your organization (donors, volunteers) as well as people who are unfamiliar with your mission but possessing specific skills needed for governance.

Pro tip: It’s perfectly fine to recruit board members who may not be connected to your mission, just don’t forget to provide immersive experiences that will help them fall in love (and stay in love) with the good work that you do.


Evolved boards focus 70 percent of their time on strategy.

Is 70 percent of your board’s time focused on forward-thinking initiatives? If not, what would it take for you to get there? What’s the first step?

Pro tip: Being able to spend significant time on strategy requires focusing on a few key areas (and not doing everything). Spend as much time thinking about the things you can STOP doing as well as the things you can START doing! One of the best things a board can do is make strategic decisions that allow you to focus on doing a few key things well.


Evolved boards require the whole picture to make decisions.

You share the “vital” things like budgets, financials and other policy documents with your board members, but do those documents alone best illustrate how your organization is accomplishing its mission?

Pro tip: There are likely key benchmarks and metrics that are important to your organization. Create a dashboard that allows for strategic conversation and measurement against the nonprofit’s key objectives. Goals should be team focused to share successes and failures, not perpetuate the blame game.


Evolved boards align trustee skills with strategic focus.

Recruit board members with the specific skills needed to support your strategic focus and successfully govern the organization. Seek a diverse mix of people – with different personalities and backgrounds – to provide an array of perspectives to balance the group.

Pro tip: It’s perfectly fine to recruit board members for the skills they offer rather than their connection to the organization. However, as we said above, it’s critically important to provide immersive experiences to help them fall in love with the mission.


Evolved boards make time for relationships, fun and meaning.

When you ask people about the best boards they’ve served on, their answers usually focus on what they learned, the impact it had on them and the people they met/served with. Hands down, the most impactful stories come from are board members who had an incredible mission-immersion experience.

Pro tip: Show your board first-hand how you “change lives or save lives” (to quote Jerry Panas). With that experience, your board members will work hard to find ways to help your organization grow. They’ll also grow as board members and testify to how your organization makes a difference. What more can you ask for?


The evolution into a strategic and focused organization starts with a few small steps and changes in behavior.

Learn more by attending our workshop, the 10 Principles of the Evolved Board, slated to be held in Indianapolis in February 2018. Stay tuned by joining the Aly Sterling Philanthropy email list at

Jen Pendleton, CFRE

Jen Pendleton, CFRE

Vice President – Indiana at Aly Sterling Philanthropy
Jennifer “Jen” Pendleton is a self-described board governance “nerd” who believes sound leadership and strong organizational culture are keys to nonprofit success. She’s also driven to help these leaders identify their nonprofits’ unique qualities and roles in the community, with the goals of making nonprofit magic happen and bringing vibrant visions to life. More about Jen...
Jen Pendleton, CFRE

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