Think of your Board of Directors as an Adult Leadership Program

When I was an Executive Director with the YMCAs, I had Program Directors who ran our programs – things like day camp, youth sports, teen leaders, etc. Other organizations probably have similar roles, people who run programs, services, do case management, etc. A couple of months ago I shared an article on effective board meetings. In it, I talked about how I think of the Board of Directors as an Adult Leadership program that the Executive Director leads. 

Our youth programs would teach kids things like teamwork, sportsmanship, and how to develop healthy relationships. Similarly, our Board of Directors helps adults to develop their presentation and collaboration skills, it teaches them how to problem solve and advocate for things that are important to them, and it gives them a connection to their community that they might not otherwise have. 

When we think about our boards in that light, it shifts how we think about the structure, functions and activities of the board. It also helps us shift from a one-way street to a two-way street. If we just think about the board as being there to serve our organization, it’s a one-way street – what can the organization get out of these people? When we consider our work with the board as a two-way street we start to think about how the work engages and develops the members of the board. 

In planning a youth development program, the director needs to consider these components: 

  • Objectives and Purpose
  • Target Audience
  • Program Structure and Activities 
  • Curriculum and Content
  • Resources and Materials
  • Staff and Volunteers
  • Budget and Funding
  • Outreach and Recruitment
  • Evaluation and Assessment
  • Safety and Risk Management 

Let’s look at each and see how these planning components can apply to running an Adult Leadership program, AKA the Board of Directors. 

  • Objectives and Purpose

    • Clarify what you want the organization to get out of the program AND what you want the participants to come away with. Will they experience skills development, personal growth, community engagement, network building, leadership skills, personal fulfillment, etc? 
  • Target Audience

    • Who and what does your organization need in order to advance the work on the cause? Think about the skills, passion, connections, characteristics, and demographics of the people you want on your board. If the people on your board do not possess the qualities that you need, how can you help them to level-up?
  • Program Structure and Activities 

    • What are you going to have your board members do? It’s not enough to just have them come to board meetings for a sit & get. Incorporate opportunities for every board member to speak and contribute. Think about engagement opportunities outside of board meetings; such as committees, task forces, program observations, community outreach, public appearances, and more. Ideas for engaging your volunteers at a higher level:
      • Provide experiential learning to help grow their knowledge of the cause
      • Give them research projects or reading to do and report back to the larger group
      • Have them interview experts in your industry and share their learnings 
      • Give them the opportunity to conduct mission moment interviews and share the impact the organization is having
      • Delegate the facilitation of a discussion topics to someone other than the board chair
      • Additionally: opening thoughts, timekeepers, and committee reports are all roles that volunteers can step into 
  • Curriculum and Content

    • The content of board work should tie back to the mission and strategies of the organization. By including volunteers in strategic planning and tying those plans back to the month-to-month work of the board, you actively engage your board in advancing the mission. In addition, consider the opportunities you are including for your volunteers to grow. You might include:
      • Formal or informal training on things like: board governance, community initiatives, leadership skills, industry trends, etc. 
      • Board mentoring
      • Presentation opportunities
      • Networking 
      • Mission education and connection
  • Resources and Materials

    • This involves ensuring that your volunteers have the information available to do their job as a board member effectively. That can include an onboarding process, access to historical information, agendas and reading materials distributed in advance, and staff or volunteer support.
  • Staff and Volunteers

    • In order to ensure that the adult leadership program is effective, it requires staff or volunteer monitoring. Often the Executive Director is the leader who ensures that the program runs according to design. A Board Development committee or a Board Governance committee can (and should) help with planning, executing, and evaluating the work of the board. 
  • Budget and Funding

    • Just like with any other program, potential expenses need to be considered. Do you need to rent space for meetings, provide meals or snacks, purchase name tags or shirts, host socials, etc? Meals or other refreshments can serve as a great strategy for bringing people together and providing informal networking. 
  • Outreach and Recruitment

    • I hardly ever talk to a nonprofit leader that doesn’t ask me how they can find and recruit good board members. It’s important to acknowledge the fact that a professional and highly productive board can be one of your best attraction and retention tools. When people are excited about serving on your board and they believe their time is being used valuably, they will want to get others involved. And, the opposite is true. If meetings are unproductive and poorly organized, they can repel prospective board members.
  • Evaluation and Assessment

    • Again, this is often led by the Executive Director, and it is great to enlist the Board Development committee with this process. Good questions for the group to discuss include:
      • How effective was our last meeting?
      • Did we engage all members?
      • Are volunteers actively contributing?
      • What can we do to make the next one better? 
      • Are there any “off-line” conversations that need to happen? 
      • Are we meeting our objectives in regards to adult leadership development? 
      • Are we moving the needle on the work of the board towards our strategic objectives? 
  • Safety and Risk Management 

    • Serving on a board is usually a fairly low risk program in terms of physical safety. Unlike providing swimming or camping programming! To make sure that your volunteers are protected, all agencies should carry Directors & Officers (D&O) insurance. Additionally, ensuring that you create a culture where it is safe for people to step outside their comfort zone is key to helping them grow. No one grows when they do not feel safe. 

There’s no question that our best volunteers are the ones who give their time and energy to our organization out of a passion and desire to give back. And that is still super important. But if we are only thinking about what we can get out of our board members, rather than what we can give them, we are missing an opportunity to further develop the adult leaders we interact with and who care about making our world a better place. 

Every nonprofit is different and has unique needs and challenges. Email me at, or schedule a Discovery Call if you would like to discuss your organization’s Adult Leadership Program. 

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors, and helper of nonprofit leaders. 


Board Expectations

A few weeks ago I wrote about the challenge of finding volunteers to serve on boards of directors. In that article I mentioned that an important component in finding and recruiting board members is clarifying the expectation your organization has for them. After all, it’s hard to commit to something when you don’t know what it entails. Clarifying your agency’s board expectations is a foundational piece of developing a strong board. 

An organization can set any expectations that are relevant and important to them. They can be as simple or as complex as needed. Personally, I like to outline board expectations into these seven categories:

  • Attendance
  • Executive Director Support
  • Community Conduit
  • Fiduciary Governance
  • Intellectual Contributions 
  • Mission and Outcome Focus
  • Fundraising and Storytelling

Organizations that take the time to clarify each component for their board will have a great tool for recruiting, managing and accountability. Because of the unique nature of nonprofits – where the Executive Director often directs the work of the board, which is also their boss – this tool can be crucial to ensuring that the board can hold itself accountable. Let’s explore each of these categories and what can be included. 


In the simplest of terms, attendance means showing up to board meetings. You may want to set a percentage of meetings they are expected to attend. It is a good practice to have set board meetings, held on the same day each month and at the same times. 

Frequency of board meetings should be set based on the needs of the organization and the work of the board. That being said, I generally recommend monthly or every other month. When a group meets less frequently it can be difficult to maintain engagement and connection. However, sometimes geographic constraints or the work of the organization may require fewer meetings. In those cases it might make sense to have longer meetings. 

In addition to attendance at board meetings, an organization may want to set expectations around attending committee meetings, special events, trainings, programming and more. Some agencies require a minimum number of hours from their volunteers each month. 

This category is also where you can define your board terms. Spell out when terms begin and end, how long they are, the ability to serve consecutive terms, and maximum length a board member can serve.

Partner with Executive Director

Running a nonprofit is a big job! Supporting the Executive Director is one of the most helpful things a board can do. When given projects or tasks it should be an expectation that the board member executes them completely and on time. Often if a board member doesn’t follow through, that work falls on the Exec. That puts the Exec in a very awkward position of having to hold one of their bosses accountable or just doing it themselves. 

Secondly in this category, there should be the expectation that the board drives the strategies of the organization. The more that the governance volunteers can focus on this aspect of the organization, the more the Exec can focus on the operations. Looking outward and focusing on strategies to advance the work of the organization is an expectation of the board. 

Lastly, no one knows everything or can have their finger on the pulse of what is going on in the community all the time. Board members should be available to the Exec when they need advice, insight or special expertise. Volunteers must give their input with the best interest of the organization as their top priority.  

Conduit to the Community

Having a board of directors multiplies the number of eyes, ears and voices in the community on behalf of an agency. Board members should be out, seeing what is going on in the community related to the work of the organization, listening to what people are saying about it, and sharing about the outcomes and impact. In addition, they should be bringing information back to the board to discuss and help with decision making and strategizing. 

Some organizations utilize their volunteers to promote their work. This can involve expectations around attending networking groups or service clubs, or even hosting house parties to educate the public on the organization. Other agencies have their board submit names for “friend raising.” This involves bringing more people into their circle of organizational advocates, to nurture them into volunteers, donors, or even future board members. There are organizations that require a board member to secure their successor before their term expires. These are all options to consider when developing expectations.

Fiduciary Governance

This component is a little more tricky to quantify and measure. The board is responsible for the financial and legal integrity of the organization. Generally the Treasurer takes the responsibility of reviewing financial statements and interpreting them for the larger board. The expectation of the board is that they make decisions that are in the best financial and legal interest of the organization. It is expected that they led from a place of selflessness. 

Intellectual contributions

Every board meeting should include some sort of generative discussion. It is best if the discussion is around strategy and organizational advancement; however, sometimes the input of volunteers on operational topics is important. That being said, board members should be prepared for discussion and ready to contribute their thoughts, perspectives and ideas. 

Not everyone is comfortable sharing in large groups. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have valuable input. Some volunteers may submit their thoughts in writing after they have had time to process the discussion. When measuring board effectiveness it can be important to recognize and honor these differences in contribution styles. 

Mission and Outcomes Focused

Every governance volunteer should take the time to understand the critical social issue that the organization is working to address; as well as the unique way they are tackling it. They should be familiar with and support policies. And they should understand the organization’s needs. 

The staff (whether paid or volunteer) are responsible for the operations and program/service delivery. It is the board’s job to make sure that the programs/services are fulfilling the mission. They are the ones who need to be driving the measurement of program impact and connecting it to the purpose of the organization. 

Lastly in this section, the board is responsible for ensuring clarity around the values of the organization. Clarifying values helps with decision making, recruiting staff and volunteers, and communicating who you are and what you do. Board members are expected to be the ones setting the example of how the organizational values look in action. 

Fundraising and Storytelling

Board members should be expected to give a personally meaningful financial donation to the organization. This is important for so many reasons! Why should anyone else give to a nonprofit if the governance board doesn’t feel strongly enough about the cause to give? Why would a grantor award a funds to an organization that doesn’t have a passionate and committed board? It must start with the board. 

In addition to giving, board members should be expected to use their network, connections, and circle of influence to advance the organization. This includes asking them to contribute. I believe that this is one of the most valuable aspects of the nonprofit sector. They are compelled to tell people how they are making the world a better place and asking them to come alongside and help. 

This can be challenging for young nonprofits, or organizations that attract volunteers who have never served on a board. That’s where the phrase “personally meaningful” or “personally significant” can be helpful. An agency may set their initial expectation at $10/month, then ask those with greater means to consider an additional personally significant contribution. Special events can be a good place for volunteers to practice their storytelling skills and work on “friend raising” before they advance to fundraising. 

If the cause is important and the organization is making a difference, every board member needs to be giving. Period. 

You may notice that none of this is about daily operations. That’s because that is not the board’s role. However, with very young or very small nonprofits, there can be some cross over. As you develop your board expectations, I recommend you keep them focused on the governance side of the organization. This keeps it clean, and if/when the organization grows, the board will know what is expected of them in their role. 

Once you and your board have established their expectations, create a tool for tracking. Quantify as much as you can and put it in a spreadsheet. Put each board member’s name down the side and regularly evaluate how everyone is doing. At a minimum the board president/chair should look at it quarterly. You can also include it into your board packets. That way everyone knows where they stand and they can help hold each other accountable. One less awkward job for the Exec to do! 

Does your organization need help establishing expectations. These can be challenging conversations. It can help to have someone from outside facilitate the discussion. If so, I would love to help! Email me at to learn more. Let’s connect!

Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.