Creating the Vision for the Next Board

By Dan Busby

?For many boards, one of the most important decisions it will make is choosing the top leader (CEO, President, Executive Director) for the organization. Similarly, the most important decision many church congregations will make is choosing the Senior Pastor.

If choosing a leader is the most important decision, creating a vision for the board and drawing the blueprint for the future board is a close second in terms of a board’s legacy.

The people who comprise the board will make an organization wither or thrive. Particularly for organizations other than churches, boards are key to selecting the right top leader, supporting or alienating an effective top leader, or dismissing or retaining an ineffective top leader. Boards decide whether they will focus on mission and policy issues or get involved in the decisions that should be made by staff.

The importance of board member selection often does not receive adequate attention. Too often, the date of the board meeting draws near when one or more board members are scheduled to be elected. The names of a couple of individuals are suggested by the top leader or board members. A hasty telephone call is made to the possible nominees, they reluctantly agree for their names to be considered and they are elected at the board meeting with little discussion.

Good boards do not just happen. Good boards are built by design and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There is a right board for the right time. Boards that want to take their organizations to the next level of achievement and performance must proactively create and implement a plan to replace themselves—to create the right board for the next decade.

The Board Governance Committee (the more contemporary version of the traditional Nominating Committee) often plays an important role in this process, working in partnership with the board chair and top leader. With board input, and ultimately the board’s full support and participation, the Governance Committee should help shape the next generation of the board.

Here are the three key steps to creating a strong board to succeed the current board:

Assess the current status of the board and the organization. Determine your current board strengths and gaps in expertise before looking for other board members. Figure out what expertise, diversity, and relationships that will be needed at the board level. For example, if the organization needs to diversify its funding sources, then consider the expertise that will be useful.

Imagine the types of people who need to be on the board. Effective boards are made up of a spectrum of talents. Describe the knowledge, experience and interest of the people who will be needed most and who have a passion for your ministry.

Determine how to identify, cultivate, recruit and engage the right people. Who needs to be involved in reaching out to the candidates who are most important? Current board members can be most helpful.

Look at the key challenges and opportunities facing the organization, especially in terms of the mission, revenue model, and strategic alliances. Understand the “business” of the organization and what it will take to maximize revenues, focus on a mission that is compelling, provide significant value to the community, and communicate the organization’s effectiveness and impact.

Determine if fundamental steps are required before contacting board prospects. Many boards have not cared about basic issues that some quality board prospects will view as problematic. Boards that procrastinate about fundamental issues may find board prospects prematurely saying “No, thank you!”

Some of the important questions boards should ask before talking to next generation board prospects include:

  • Are our bylaws up-to-date? Imagine the awkwardness of providing a copy of your bylaws to a board prospect and saying: “We don’t exactly operate in conformity with our current bylaws. Our board has intended to revise them.”
  • Is our meeting schedule reasonable?  Meetings that are held at convenient times and locations may be very important to some board prospects. If your board meets more frequently than quarterly, this can be a deal-breaker for prospects. They may wonder how your board can possibly limit itself to mission, vision and policy issues if it meets monthly.
  • Do we have adequate Directors’ and Officers’ liability insurance coverage? Many quality individuals will not serve unless your organization has this coverage.

On a related topic, the organization will want to provide in its articles or bylaws that when board members incur judgments and related expenses as the result of a commission—or omission—while acting in service of the organization, it will pay these expenses. The indemnification cannot extend to criminal acts and may not cover certain willful acts that violate a civil law.

  • Is our financial house in order?  Few things are more scary to board member prospects than cloudy financials. Do your financials use terminology that does not clearly communicate revenue and expenses?  Are the footnotes to the financial statements unclear? Have you borrowed from restricted net assets to pay day-to-day expenses? Does the data in your audit correspond with the Form 990 (if filing is required)?
  • Is there an up-to-date manual of board standing policies?  It will be difficult to communicate how the board functions unless you have put these policies in writing.
  • Do we have an effective method of dealing with “deadwood” on the board? If a prospect senses he or she is joining a board with deadwood, this is often a real turn-off. Some boards address this issue with term limits. In other situations, the board governance committee may have the responsibility of periodically meeting with board members to determine their continuing service interest.
  • Do you have a good member experience mix?  It is important to periodically bring “new blood” onto the board. It is also vital to have some members who know the history of the organization. This can be accomplished by bringing back proven board contributors after a year or two of absence as a member.

Map the transition. Plan a timetable and a process. This will depend on how much of a change the board designs for itself. In some cases, a controlled evolution will work perfectly well.

In other cases, the board might need to be more ambitious to take the organization to a new level on a more radical schedule; such a goal for the board will require a more creative approach—possibly establishing a small band of high-caliber candidates and positioning them for greater responsibility through a carefully orchestrated transition. Funders can be key allies, and an outside consultant can be a useful facilitator.

Identify board candidates and court them. Many of the most desirable board candidates will take time and attention. Today’s board members should be engaging good future prospects. Some of the best board members need to be “queued up.”  Although their volunteer time might be fully committed at the present, they can often be recruited for the next round.

Summary. Board recruitment is an ongoing process—not just something to think about when vacancies arise. The key is recruiting new members strategically to find the right people to meet your organization’s needs. Strategic thinking occurs when board members envision the board they would like to have replace themselves over the next few years. This is the best gift the board could leave to the organization and those it serves.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.