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Guidelines for Improving the Effectiveness of Boards of Directors of Nonprofit Organizations (Murray & Harrison)

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    The purpose of this book is to help boards of directors of nonprofit organizations improve their performance after completing the online board self-assessment tool found at However, it can also be used as a stand-alone resource for any board seeking to enhance its effectiveness in that it also contains the diagnostic questions on which the online tool is based.

    • 1: Introduction
      The approach taken here is similar to that which lies behind health checkups for individuals. Doctors usually begin by asking us to review a lengthy list of possible health issues and we check those about which we have concerns. The doctor and patient then focus their discussions on these issues. The typical process proceeds through the following three stages: (1) Understanding the symptoms. (2) Diagnosis and (3) Treatment.
    • 2: The Board’s Role and Responsibilities
      While virtually everyone agrees that the role of the board in nonprofit organizations is to enable them to achieve their mission, differences arise when it comes to specifying exactly what the board’s authority and responsibilities should be. In fact, this is probably the most frequently written about topic in the literature on nonprofit organization boards. What should the board’s role and authority be compared to that held by these other important positions?
    • 3: The Board’s Role in Planning
      It is commonly accepted “best practice” that a major role for boards ought to be thinking about the “big picture” of how the organization is doing and where it ought to be heading in the future. It is usually recommended that this big picture thinking be captured in a “Strategic Plan” which can be used as a guide by all in the organization in making specific policy decisions.
    • 4: The Board’s Role in Performance Assessment
      Boards of nonprofit organizations are required to exert due diligence in ensuring that the organizations they govern are achieving their missions effectively and efficiently. Quite aside from legal requirements, most boards feel an obligation to hold those who run the organization accountable for achieving results in carrying out the responsibilities delegated to them. They also wish to be able to identify and recognize what is being done well in the organization.
    • 5: The Board’s Role in Fundraising
      Effectively performing the board’s role in fundraising is one of the most common challenges reported by both board members and those with whom they have relationships.
    • 6: The Board’s Structure and Operating Procedures
      One of the major influences on how well a nonprofit organization board carries out its duties and responsibilities is the way it is organized. All boards have at least a minimum amount of formal organization and a set of policies that constrain, and support the way they operate. For example, most nonprofits have a constitution and/or a set of by-laws among which are rules regarding the role of the board, its size and composition, when and how annual meetings will be held, who votes, etc.
    • 7: Effective Board Meetings
      The quality of formal board meetings can make a considerable difference to a board’s success. At the very least, having to sit in on a number of poorly run meetings can destroy the commitment of even the most dedicated supporter of an organization’s cause. Meetings that are poorly organized, go on too long, go off on tangents instead of sticking to the point, feature personal conflicts or domineering individuals turn people off and can cause serious damage by leading to poor decisions.
    • 8: The Composition and Development of the Board
      A major component of effective boards is having the right combination of people on them and providing them with ample opportunity to learn what they need to know to be good governors. The two basic requirements for all board members is that they becommitted to the mission of the organization and have the time and energy to devote to the work of the board. A
    • 9: The Informal Culture of the Board
      Board culture is the collection of taken-for-granted attitudes, social norms, perceptions and beliefs about “how we do things around here” shared, usually unconsciously, by a majority of board members.
    • 10: Leadership on the Board
      Just as in other work groups, however, boards have both formal and informal individual leaders within them—people who have a significant influence over how the group works and how effective it is. For example, as previously discussed, some boards develop influential core groups within them and they can be a positive or negative force for change
    • 11: Conclusions
      The purpose of this guidebook has been to a) help you understand some of the issues that challenge the effectiveness of nonprofit boards, b) offer some explanations as to why they exist, and c) provide guidance on how to manage them so as to improve the effectiveness of the governance function. The book, and the Board Check-Up research project of which it is a part, is derived from the idea of health checkups in medicine.
    • About the Authors
      For the past dozen years, Vic Murray and Yvonne Harrison have worked collaboratively combining their knowledge and expertise to make research, education, and tools available to leaders in the nonprofit sector in need of them.