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4 biggest nonprofit board struggles and how to solve them

June 03, 2021
A group of board members sit around a table to discuss nonprofit board struggles and solutions.

During a recent webinar, we asked nonprofit organizations, “What’s your biggest problem with your board?” The responses were eye-opening. So many organizations are struggling with uninvolved boards, members who don’t participate in fundraising, or board members who are resistant to change.  

While these struggles are common, there are steps that your nonprofit can take to overcome them and put your nonprofit (and board) on the path to successful fundraising.

Most of the board struggles we heard fell into these four categories: 

  1. Under-involved board members
  2. Boards aren’t fundraising or donating
  3. Board members are stuck in their ways
  4. Staff and board roles are unclear

Here are some of the responses we received, along with some pieces of advice you can use to combat these common challenges.

1. Under-involved board members 

Of the nonprofits surveyed, 41% indicated that they had under-involved board members. Here’s what some of these organizations had to say:

  • “Board members are so busy with their jobs and don’t seem to have enough time to give to the organization.” 
  • “They have no personal connection, they are involved because someone has asked them and they want it on their resume only.” 
  • “My board does not understand what their real responsibility is – they see the director as the person who is the worker bee.”

This can be a frustrating challenge, but there are some easily-implemented changes your nonprofit can make to boost member engagement. First, make sure each board member has a clear understanding of what their roles and responsibilities are, ideally before you grant them member status. Then, outline very specific, actionable tasks and responsibilities for them, along with a deadline to complete the tasks. 

Finally, make sure to vet any prospective board members in the future to ensure they are dedicated, passionate advocates for your cause. Consider reviewing past philanthropic activities to understand what matters to them. 

2. Boards aren’t fundraising or donating 

Another common issue for nonprofits, shared by 28% of the webinar attendees, is that their board members do not participate in fundraising efforts. These nonprofit professionals explained that:

  • “Our board members often think their organization’s giving is theirs.” 
  • “My board says, ‘I’m already doing all I can in my committee, or ‘I’ve already given sizeably.’ 
  • “Our current board has never been expected to fundraise for many years.” 

In addition to setting your board members’ expectations from the beginning, it’s also important to make them feel involved during every step of the fundraising process. Involve them when you set your fundraising goals, and ask each of them to set a personal fundraising goal for themselves. 

Because many board members don’t have a background in fundraising, it can also be helpful to set them up with the resources they need to be successful. Outline your typical fundraising cadence, teach them what makes a good prospect, and appoint a member of your fundraising department to coach them.

3. Board members are stuck in their ways 

For 17% of the nonprofit professionals attending the webinar, their board members were resistant to changes. These organizations cited specific problems, like:

  • “My biggest issue is that the board I lead says, ‘But we’ve always done it this way. Why should we do all this new stuff?’ (even though the old stuff isn’t bringing success).” 
  • “Resistance to change in process, particularly with regard to technology & its use” 
  • “The biggest problem with my board is the culture they have been accustomed to – they have not been exposed to their role and responsibility with regard to fundraising.” 

It can be difficult to change the minds of long-term board members who are set in their ways. However, you can make a strong argument for your proposed changes by demonstrating the positive impact they could make. For example, if you are proposing switching to a more tech- and social media-based fundraising strategy (as opposed to direct mail, for instance), you might pull statistics that highlight a higher return on investment from social media campaigns versus traditional methods.

If board members are still reluctant to make these changes, consider expanding your board. Search for new members who are receptive to innovation and change in the interest of furthering your purpose. Ideally, these new members will inspire those with a longer tenure to branch out from “how things have always been done.”

4. Staff and board roles are unclear  

During the webinar, 14% of nonprofits said that they felt staff and board roles were unclear in their organization. Here’s what they had to say about this challenge:

  • “Our CEO is hesitant to open communications between staff and board.” 
  • “Creating a balance to ensure the staff understand the role of the board and still go to the CEO first when they have an issue.” 
  • “Biggest problem: not knowing the role of the board in philanthropy – and the board not knowing their role, too.” 

This issue can halt important fundraising progress over confusion about who (staff or board members) takes ownership of certain tasks. The fastest way to remedy this is to organize a meeting with your CEO and any other decision-makers to create a guide outlining which tasks should be completed by staff and which should be done by the board. Then, share this with each team, answering questions and making adjustments as needed. 

Remember to revisit this breakdown of roles every year or so to make updates. Additionally, establish a cadence for communicating about confusion over role breakdowns so staff and board members can quickly get an answer and either proceed with or delegate the task.

Moving forward: Improving board processes and communications

Many of the most common board-related struggles nonprofits have boil down to gaps in communication. Identifying and closing these gaps by taking measures like clearly identifying board members’ roles and responsibilities or providing fundraising resources can make all the difference. Limit confusion and ambiguity around board involvement to get the most out of your board and make them feel like true advocates for your cause.

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