Nonprofit Boards Rated Slightly Above Average on Overall Performance

Would you give your board an A plus in performance?   If yes, then you are in the minority according to Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, a report that indicates both nonprofit executives and board chairs consider their board performance only slightly above average, with an overall grade of B minus.  Survey respondents from across the country rated their boards in various areas of responsibilities with average grades ranging from an A minus in mission to a C in fundraising.

The study, conducted by BoardSource, found that boards excel at tasks of a technical nature, such as compliance and fiscal oversight, while lagging in community outreach and acting as an “ambassador” for the organization. Other areas of improvement noted:

  • Diversity. Inclusiveness in board composition – not as a numbers issue but as a valid representation of people involved in the organization – is an area in need of attention with 35 percent of the CEOs surveyed giving their board a B or above in this area.
  • Showing up. Board attendance is declining, with less than half (37 percent) of boards surveyed reporting 90 percent or better attendance in 2014.
  • Raising money. While board giving is up, fundraising is a sensitive issue. Less than ¼ of boards reported even being comfortable with providing donor contact information, and just 12 percent were comfortable meeting donors face to face.
  • Information and strategy. 35% of the boards received a C or below in the area of strategic planning.

The data and implications around these and other areas of board performance are presented in the full report, available at the Leading with Intent website. You can learn more about BoardSource here.

This was a national study, but board report cards are also a great tool at the organizational level.  These kind of self-evaluations help gauge board members’ perceptions of their own levels of knowledge and confidence, as well as measure overall board performance.  This information assists the board in identifying and discussing areas of strengths and limitations and prioritizing governance actions for the upcoming year.





Report Citation: BoardSource, Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices (Washington, D.C.: BoardSource, 2015)

Collaboration – Everybody’s Doing It

Here’s your one word resolution for 2015 – collaborate. If you already are, do it strategically and more often. If you aren’t, you are missing out on a highly adaptable, relatively low-cost way to increase impact. A December 2014  study from the Bridgespan Group, in conjunction with The Lodestar Foundation, found that collaboration isn’t just a popular topic in the nonprofit sector – it’s actually happening and it’s working well for the majority of players.

Highlights from the study,

Collaboration is happening.  The trend is real.  Over 90 percent of the nonprofit leaders surveyed had participated in one of the forms of collaboration examined by the study (associations, joint programs, shared support functions, and mergers) within the last three years,  with 54 percent participating in at least two forms.  The majority (93 percent) of nonprofit executives expect to become involved in additional collaboration during 2015.

People in the sector like it. The majority (over 70 percent) of nonprofit executives described the collaborations they participated in as successful. Only a small percentage of each type of collaboration did not achieve their intended goals, according to respondent ratings.

People in the sector intend to do more of it. Both nonprofit executives and foundations reported their intention to do more collaboration in the future. Funders want to see more collaboration in the sector, specifically shared support functions (76 percent) and mergers (55 percent).

Additional findings, including the very real challenges facing quality collaboration, are included in the brief Making Sense of Nonprofit Collaborations by Alex Neuhoff, Katie Smith Milway, Reilly Kiernan, and Josh Grehan, available at the Bridgespan Group website.

One note of caution. Before you get the urge to start trimming programs also offered by peer organizations or make merger your “word for 2015,”  check out the article Again, Nonprofit Mergers are no Cure All at Nonprofit Quarterly.  Collaboration takes many forms and not all may be the best fit for your mission, constituency or bottom line. If collaboration is your resolution for 2015 then, as with all resolutions, start slowly, research what will work best for you, and keep at it.

What Nonprofits REALLY Want from Board Members

Colleen Dilenschneider posts another must-read at her blog Know Your Own Bone on the disconnect between what nonprofit executives need from board members and what board members expect to give during their tenure.  A study of visitor-serving organizations found that CEOs needed board members to bring in revenue – first, foremost, always. Executive management from nonprofits of all sizes consistently ranked “Treasure” as the top priority of the board, ahead of  “Time” and “Talent”. Board members reported their top priority was to share their “Talent” with the organization (with the exception of members serving on boards of 1+ million annual visitors).  The quotes from the study included in the post make it abundantly clear that while skills and connections are appreciated, if the organization is lagging behind in filling its coffers, board members better be ready to lead by example.

Part of this gap in perception could be chalked up to poor recruitment, incomplete vetting or a fear of appearing mercenary by enforcing the giving requirements in a board agreement. Never underestimate fear – it’s easy to list frustrations anonymously in a survey, not so much to be the one sweeping board members out the door and risking blowback from philanthropic circles.  If this gap exists in your organization you may want examine internal roles and procedures, for example,

  • Is your nonprofit making expectations clear to board members during the recruitment process or is the financial obligation suggested hesitantly and never broached again?
  • Do you ask long-standing board members who grasp the importance of their role in raising funds to mentor new members?
  • How does leadership respond to board members who state  they cannot get their connections to support your cause if the events aren’t more lavish or the promotional materials more appealing – the vague and unhelpful spend more to make … something… suggestion? In other words, do you allow members to  blame the organization for non-fulfillment of their own responsibilities?


If after some adjustments and clarifications around expectations and responsibilities your board is still giving you more verbal than financial support, it’s time for some no frills, honest dialogue between the leadership and members.  How would you begin?

Learning to be a Better Leader

A case study on the return on investment of emotional intelligence on productivity and work environment found a predictive relationship between emotional quotient (EQ) scores and individual performance.  Amadori, a European meat supplier, embarked on an initiative with Six Seconds focused on improved management and staff development through an overhaul of the organization’s leadership style.  The study showed that managers who scored in the top 25 percent in EQ also scored higher in individual performance (47 percent of the variation could be explained by EQ) and that the sites with high EQ executives also had higher levels of employee engagement.  As employee engagement was predictive of performance outcomes including motivation, retention and productivity, the factory sites with managers skilled in emotional intelligence experienced better organizational performance.

The adage claims that leaders are born not made, but the literature on the usefulness of emotional intelligence in business and its inclusion in leadership development materials, plus performance results like those in the study above, illustrate how even “born” leaders must be developed.  Good leadership can be taught in the form of theories and tools but – as other bloggers have wondered – whether it can be learned effectively is another matter entirely.

A while ago I observed a project debriefing that was one of the most tense and awkward sessions I had ever experienced. The team delivered a successful end product and yet the tone of the meeting was anything but positive.  On the surface, the group assembled appeared to be a healthy, functioning team, but cracks began to show as the session continued with member affect ranging from mildly detached to downright apathetic. The facilitator-coaxed feedback was not acknowledged by those who needed to hear it most, rather much of it was dismissed and those brave enough to allude to issues that could have been handled better were chided as unprofessional. I later heard that several members of that department had left the organization of their own accord.

Was it a low EQ, poor leadership development, or maybe just sheer stubbornness that kept the leader from acknowledging the team that day?  A little empathy and a modicum of self-awareness could have gone a long way in healing a fractured team that, despite  internal conflicts, had succeeded. In the end it was the organization that really lost – both in talent and in the time spent replacing and training a new team.  With all the talk about servant leadership and emotional intelligence, even in nonprofits who consider themselves more people-than-profit-driven, are apologies viewed as surrender? Do we secretly fear that empathy equals “doormat”?

Leadership is tricky. My first foray into it, on the smallest scale in the most benign of conditions, was a spectacular failure. For years after that experience, I successfully evaded any opportunity that even hinted of “leading” outside of my favorite type of project – the one person kind.  I was not a leader, I pshawed – nope, never would be either, that mantle was for others far grander, smarter and more charismatic than I.  It was a safe little pigeonhole to hunker down in, and I did so for years until circumstances demanded change.  My ongoing path from pigeonhole dweller to “follow me” has been a spiral not a steady ascent, and would not have happened without the people I met along the way who were (and still are) exceptional leaders. Some simply made an impression, others became mentors if not outright catalysts for transformation, and at the risk of heading completely into tweeness, I have to admit that I learned more from being a part of their teams than I ever could have hoped for at the time.

Leaders can be made. Or perhaps, as with Dorothy, we had the power all along, we just need the right tools, lessons, and people to help give it shape, focus and flight.