Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Leading a nonprofit 12: building and working with the starting-stage board of directors

Posted in career development, job search and career development, nonprofits by Timothy Platt on December 12, 2012

This is my twelfth installment in a series on leading a nonprofit (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 267-277 for Parts 1-11.) And with this posting I turn to a topic area that I have addressed from other directions, many times: boards of directors and board members.

• For a more general discussion of boards and what they do, see my series: Joining, Serving On and Leading a Board of Directors at Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 179-205 for Parts 1-27.)
• For a more focused discussion of nonprofit boards, see Boards of Directors and Nonprofits and I also recommend reviewing the postings on boards that I cite in that. In that regard I particularly note Boards of Directors and Corporate Culture and Strategy.

My focus here is on the board as viewed from the perspective of the nonprofit founder and chief executive officer. And I begin with the fundamentals of what a good startup-stage board can offer a nonprofit founder as they begin to build an organization around their mission and vision.

Well chosen, effective board members can bring a wide range of value to a nonprofit and to its leadership. Simply touching on a few of the more basic and even standard points, board members can:

• Provide focused and immediately relevant advice and insight into setting up a new organization. This can include, among other things, advice in finding and bringing in legal or other relevant expertise, for incorporating the organization as a nonprofit and for meeting other basic legal due diligence requirements.
• This can mean directly providing expertise and that can even include detailed mentoring where there are functional expertise gaps in the founding team. And this can include advice in finding the right new members of an executive team to help fill those gaps.
• Networking and expanding the new organization’s effective networking reach can be very important.
• And with time and perhaps from early on, board members can help bring in funding support as well as seed money for launching the nonprofit.

The basic idea here is that board members help identify and address strategic and operational gaps, and they help the newly forming organization to find its way through its earliest stage uncertainties and learning curves. So who is on the board and certainly from the start is very important.

And to put all of this into perspective and with a very real-world type of working example, I would pick up on a scenario that I have been touching on through the last several series installments:

• Sometimes a nonprofit founder is the right person to express and promote the mission and vision and the right person to bring others together around the goals that this mission and vision would demand – and also the right person to lead this newly forming organization as a business startup and as a business organization that has to meet very stringent and demanding cash flow and revenue utilization requirements.
• But it is common that even if the mission and vision oriented founder could be that business leader as well, they might still need real help and advice – focused mentoring to get there. They might for example have solid business experience but only in well established businesses and be new to working with let alone leading or founding a startup. They might be new to nonprofits and need guidance there.
• Well selected board members can bring that type of mentoring capability to the table. And in this I explicitly note that that calls for tact and mentoring skills, and an understanding as to when to step forward and speak and when to step back, as much as it calls for technical and organizational expertise.
• And this brings me to a point where real tact and judgment is needed. A founder might not know enough about some aspect of actually building a successful organization to even know where they have gaps in their experience and knowledge. A leader who is willing and able to stop and listen and learn can overcome even very significant educational and experiential gaps and come to really succeed in what for them are new areas of action and responsibility. Board members can help make that happen.
• And to repeat a detail from earlier series installments that can come up in this set of issues, sometimes a founder is not the right person for the job of day-to-day chief business leader. A board can help find and bring in the right partner in leadership, and can help the forming executive team find its way forward if this type of splitting of responsibility would make the most sense.
• And of course when one person can take on both sets of roles and do them both well, the board can still offer effective and important advice and insight, and both from their own direct experience and as they network for more community-based knowledge and insight.

Making all of this work begins with finding and bringing onboard the right board members. And this is probably going to begin with the founder’s networking reach and with professionals and others who they already know and who in many cases, they have already worked with.

Note that I have not mentioned board member dedication to the importance of this nonprofit’s specific mission and vision. That can certainly help motivate potential board members to make the effort and to assume the commitment needed. But I have seen board members perform with extraordinary dedication and effectiveness for other reasons too, including personal regard for the nonprofit’s founder from having worked with them, and from that founder having helped them in their own careers. I have specific board members and nonprofits in mind as I note that possible source of motivation. My point is that sources of motivation can be varied and complex. Don’t just look for people who see the specific mission and vision of a nonprofit as the be all and end all of the universe.

• So I have written this from the founder’s and the chief executive officer’s perspective but I have also been writing this in significant part from the board member’s perspective too. To make this work, these varying perspectives have to mesh and align, and for mutual support and in support of the founding organization.

I am going to continue my discussion of working with a board in my next series installment, where I will focus on the established nonprofit and its board of directors. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development. You can also find this and related postings at Nonprofits and Social Networking.

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