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Frank Martinelli

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Encouraging Visionary Board Leadership

Are you interested in building an active and strategically-oriented board of directors? You are not alone. According to a recent survey of regional and national studies about nonprofits’ greatest challenges, board effectiveness was cited as the most frequent concern.

From YOU and Your Nonprofit Board

YOU and Your Nonprofit Board

This article is excerpted from the forward-looking book, YOU and Your Nonprofit Board: Advice and Practical Tips from the Field's Top Practitioners, Researchers, and Provocateurs, edited by Terrie Temkin, PhD.

For a nonprofit to succeed, it must have a board that is passionately committed to the mission, possesses substantial leadership skills, and is organized for strategic leadership. Nothing less will do. During this time of heightened change, boards continue to face the challenges of building long-term financial sustainability, weighing strategic restructuring options, planning for leadership succession, and more. At the same time, the unrelenting pace of change challenges nonprofit boards to look and act differently. Some boards have already made the transition. They possess a number of qualities and characteristics that together define a new profile of board effectiveness.

The New Profile

The boards that fit this new profile possess the following characteristics:

  • They are visionary and future-focused, spending most of their decision-making time looking forward.
  • They possess an entrepreneurial spirit, understanding that their organizations operate in a fast-changing marketplace, which seeks products and services to meet emerging customer needs.
  • The new-thinking boards’ leaders are risk-takers, balancing the need to take chances with the traditional stewardship responsibilities of board service.
  • They are strategic decision makers who, in partnership with staff leadership, utilize a range of planning approaches and tools.
  • They are effective communicators, understanding the importance of good communication at all levels. They organize the board and its committees to enhance this.
  • They are systems thinkers, seeking to understand the root causes and forces that shape the issues and challenges they will face in the boardroom. They look for courses of action that will exert the highest possible leverage as they respond to those issues.

Food for Thought

Is your board equipped for success today? Is it . . .

  • Visionary and future-focused?
  • Entrepreneurial?
  • Risk-taking?
  • Strategic when making decisions?
  • Effective in its communication?
  • Systems-focused?
  • Committed to partnerships and alliances?
  • Appreciative of diversity?

In these “new” boards, leaders also look for creative ways to connect their organizations to the world around them, exploring and imagining new forms of partnerships and alliances that will support their missions and advance their strategic plans. These boards’ leaders also have a deep appreciation of the strength of diversity. They understand that diversity helps assure a higher level of responsiveness to customers and also promotes creativity, innovation, and organizational learning.

These qualities and characteristics that define effective boards equip their members to exercise a more visionary and strategic leadership style. Let’s look at five strategies that can help your board adopt a visionary leadership style.

Strategies for Becoming a Visionary Board

Strategy 1: Focus on “Ultimate Ends”

Taking our inspiration from John Carver, author of Boards That Make a Difference, boards must concentrate on the ultimate ends of the nonprofits they govern and avoid any tendency to micro-manage. Stated another way, they should focus on the mission, vision, and overarching strategic priorities contained in the strategic plan. Recognizing that strategic leadership is a shared responsibility, they should leave the means—the daily management of the organization—to the executive director. This approach will help boards structure their meeting time to address more pressing governance matters. Key practices to consider:

  • Design board meeting agendas to focus attention on the “ultimate ends” and avoid micro-management. This includes the use of consent agendas to minimize time on routine matters of business and to maximize the time spent on matters that are directly related to governance.
  • Utilize an organizational dashboard to monitor the organization’s performance on key success factors that are linked to the nonprofit’s strategic plan. By paying close attention to these indicators, boards are more likely to maintain a focus on priority areas of governance.
  • Align the board’s committee structure with its strategic thinking and decision-making responsibilities. All board committees, workgroups, and task forces—including core committees such as governance, finance, and fund development—should reflect current strategic priorities requiring the board’s focused attention in the coming year—attention that will move the vision forward.
  • Conduct an annual assessment of the board’s capacity for visionary leadership. Such an assessment would include an examination of how well the board is maintaining its focus on the mission, vision, and current strategic priorities.

Strategy 2: Build a Leadership Pipeline for the Future

In contrast to the typical short-term recruitment process that focuses narrowly on filling anticipated board vacancies for the current year only, boards need a long-range plan for developing future leadership. Such a plan centers on the following questions: Who will be serving on and leading the board over the next five years? What is our plan to scout board leadership talent for the future? How will we go about fostering and developing this future board leadership? What we’re talking about is board leadership succession planning. Key elements to this approach:

  • Create a standing governance committee to replace the traditional nominations and recruitment committee. The governance committee will use the key questions listed above to devise an ongoing process that includes prospecting, recruiting, selecting, orienting, training, and assessing the performance of board members.
  • Develop a written board member job description that reflects the future needs and expectations of the board with an emphasis on strategic leadership.
  • Link board development to your strategic plan. Identify the new skills, knowledge, personal contacts, and other attributes future board members will need to possess in order for the board to do its part in advancing the strategic plan. Based on this analysis, develop targeted board recruitment and leadership development priorities.
  • Develop a just-in-time board orientation program to speed up the learning curve for new board members so that they can hit the ground running in their first meeting. “Just-in-time” means providing vital information earlier and in a variety of formats that allow prospective and new board members to learn about the organization and your expectations of board service at any time that is convenient to the individuals and from anyplace that these people might need to access it. Again, it is important to link the orientation program to the strategic plan.

Beyond this initial orientation, foster a continuous learning environment for all board members.

Practical Tip

Just-in-Time Board Orientation

The latest research indicates that most board members learn their roles on the job. As a result, it can sometimes take new board members several months or more to fully understand their basic roles, let alone their responsibilities as strategic thinkers and decision-makers. To prevent this from happening and impeding their effectiveness, be sure to cover the following with prospective board members before they commit to board service:

  • Overview of collective and individual board responsibilities—no micro-management!—and how these are linked to your nonprofit’s future-focused approach to governance
  • Detailed information about how the board does its work regarding meetings, committees, policy-making, board-staff relations, and decision-making flow
  • A thorough review of the current strategic plan as well as the board’s part in developing, monitoring, and periodically updating the strategic plan

The idea is to cover this ground earlier with prospective and new board members—to move orientation further upstream and to provide access to learning in a variety of formats. Such formats might include online, on-demand, mobile app, in person, and individualized self-study.

Strategy 3: Develop a Shared Vision of Intended Impact

The key question for nonprofit boards is this: If, through advancing our mission, we could have the impact we have always desired, what would this success look like in five years? The board’s answer to this question captures the organization’s strategic vision.

Strategic vision reflects the institutional and community impact we intend to create and the kind of organization we will need to be in order to achieve this impact. “Vision of Intended Impact” has also been defined as a clear, measureable statement of what the organization will hold itself accountable for and align activities around.

As mentioned earlier, it is critical that the board be involved in the development of a shared vision—the centerpiece of the strategic plan. Once your board has developed a vision statement, look for ways to live the vision in your organization. For example:

  • Use the strategic vision as a framework for board decision making in every meeting—not just during an annual planning retreat.
  • Share your vision with the community. Once you go public with it, it’s hard not to live up to the vision.
  • Ask board members what they think is most exciting and inspiring to them about your nonprofit’s vision. Remember, it was their passion for mission and vision that led them to join the board in the first place! Tap this energy to increase board performance and accountability.
  • Use the vision as the basis for regular dialogue in meetings on emerging issues and challenges.
  • Seek media coverage when strategic plan milestones are reached, and use this as an opportunity to promote your vision both inside and outside of the organization.

Strategy 4: Keep Up with the Rapid Pace of Change

Practical Tip

You can use these questions as the basis for round-robin sharing among members at the beginning of a board meeting.

Round-Robin Sharing

You can use these questions as the basis for round-robin sharing among members at the beginning of a board meeting.

  • What excites you about the vision?
  • What actions would be most appropriate for the board to take to advance the mission and vision?
  • Is there anything that the board currently does that is keeping the organization from moving forward in the direction of its vision?

You can also incorporate such questions into a strategic planning exercise to get a read on the board’s level of commitment to the current mission and vision statements, and to surface any questions or concerns that need to be answered in order for the board to enthusiastically support and champion these key governing ideas in the future.

Another strategy for nurturing visionary leadership is to help the board keep up with the rapid pace of change. Provide information that helps the board think about these key questions: What external changes and trends will have the greatest impact over the next three to five years on the organization and the people it serves? How can the organization effectively respond to these changes and trends? How are other organizations responding to these changes and trends?


Strategic Marketing Information System

In most instances, a strategic marketing information system can draw from a variety of data-gathering activities that are already in place and that support ongoing staff efforts in program development and grant writing. Some examples include focus groups, secondary market research, surveys, key informant/expert interviews, community forums, internal reviews, and online literature searches.Develop summaries that employ communication techniques such as infographics—visual representations of sometimes complex information, relationships or knowledge that make data more accessible and usable by the board. For example, a recent report on African American philanthropy with key trends summarized in a series of graphic representations revealed three distinct donor profiles within the African American community and four opportunities for building African American philanthropy. Utilizing this data, board and staff leadership of one nonprofit are reassessing and refining current fund development strategies for this important donor demographic.

Develop summaries that employ communication techniques such as infographics—visual representations of sometimes complex information, relationships or knowledge that make data more accessible and usable by the board. For example, a recent report on African American philanthropy with key trends summarized in a series of graphic representations revealed three distinct donor profiles within the African American community and four opportunities for building African American philanthropy. Utilizing this data, board and staff leadership of one nonprofit are reassessing and refining current fund development strategies for this important donor demographic.

Let’s remember, however, that busy people will have difficulty finding time to read a lot of material on trends. So, if you intend to share information with the board, whether printed or online, make sure that it is timely, relevant, and well-summarized. Here are some suggestions for helping board members stay abreast:

  • Schedule time during the regular board meetings for discussion about the impact of key external changes and trends, as well as emerging critical issues.
  • Encourage individual board members to read, listen, and look for information about emerging trends and share that information with the rest of the board.
  • Periodically send board members short readable articles, summarizing relevant future trends.
  • Involve the board in ongoing strategic thinking and planning as a way to expose it to new external trend data.

Strategy 5: Stay Attuned to Changing Needs

The fifth strategy consists of providing board members with opportunities to become educated about the changing needs of your stakeholders. Help them understand trends associated with all of the groups central to your success—clients or customers, donors, volunteers, lawmakers, vendors, and community members. Key questions for the board to learn the answers to include these: What do our stakeholders think of the organization? What are their most important future needs and service expectations of the organization? For the new needs and service expectations most likely to emerge among stakeholders, are there other organizations well-positioned to meet these needs?

Consider the following activities:

  • Create opportunities for board members to “meet the customer.” One organization schedules an annual town hall forum to provide board members with a face-to-face opportunity to listen to constituents talk about their emerging needs.
  • Tap staff experience and knowledge of clients, partners, donors, and funders to deepen the board’s understanding of emerging stakeholder needs.
  • Establish a strategic marketing information system to supply the board with data to enhance its governing role. Access to such data helps to assure that the voice of the customer is reflected in major board decisions while avoiding any temptation to micro-manage.

To summarize, an effective board of directors that can exercise visionary leadership is built upon a number of key strategies. These processes, structures, and practices reinforce each other and lay the groundwork for board and organizational effectiveness in this time of continuing rapid, profound change.


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