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Standards for Excellence Blog: Engaging the Board as a Catalyst for Change


Jacqui Catrabone

Engaging the Board as a Catalyst for Change
by Debra Thompson and Jacqui Catrabone, Strategy Solutions, Inc.

As an Executive Director (ED), or CEO, of a nonprofit organization you undoubtedly have a lot on your plate. That’s why it’s important that your board of directors align with and help advance the agency’s strategic plan.

But how can you effectively engage the board to be a catalyst for real change?

The Standards for Excellence:® An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector offers guidance on how to do just that. The first step is a solid strategic planning process.

An effective strategic plan is the foundation for board engagement.

Writer Joel A. Barker once said, “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.”

You probably wouldn’t be the ED of a nonprofit if you didn’t want to make a positive change. However, change can only be made when there is a genuine partnership between the board and staff to implement the strategic plan.

Clarifying roles between the board of directors and agency staff is an important step in ensuring organizational success.

Board Responsibilities

  • Governance

  • Decide ‘what’

  • Make policy

  • Set strategic goals

  • Review long term plans

  • Monitor progress

Executive Director Responsibilities

  • Administration

  • Decide ‘how’

  • Carry out policy

  • Plan to achieve goals

  • Implement plans

  • Monitor progress

Keep in mind, even though one party is responsible for this list of tasks, the other is also involved. For example, it is the Executive Director’s responsibility to lead strategic planning and engage the board by providing a “work product” that answers these questions for the board to react to:

  • Where are we now? Community needs, organization needs, stakeholder input

  • Where do we want to be? Vision, mission, goals

  • How are we going to get there? Objectives and strategies

  • Who will be doing what? Action plan, board agenda of work, budget, timeframes

  • How are we doing? Quarterly reports, evaluation

Many organizations believe they’re finished with the strategic planning process once they identify goals and objectives. When the final steps of ‘who will be doing what’ and ‘how are we doing’ are overlooked, organizations get stuck and have difficulty implementing key components of their strategic plan.

Roles need to be clearly defined and delineated among board members and staff. Once the strategic plan is aligned with your board structure, it IS possible to engage the board to help change the world! Here’s how it’s done:

Outline specific roles for each committee to help advance strategic plan implementation.

The way in which you structure your board is a critical success factor in supporting the strategic plan implementation.

The Standards for Excellence Institute recommends creating three standing board committees:

  1. Executive Committee. ED liaison, strategic plan oversight, emergency action

  2. Finance Committee. Budget, financial oversight, audit

  3. Governance Committee. Board recruitment, board engagement, board performance, bylaws

As the ED, it’s crucial to think through board roles and the assistance you want in supporting plan implementation. If you can clearly outline requests and requirements for your board and structure them within the context of committee work, they will be engaged in the activities necessary to actually accomplish your goals.

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