Plotting a Path for Your Working Board

Board: Effective Governance
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by | May 1, 2019 | Blog | 0 comments

One of our most popular blogs to date describes governance vs. operational boards. So we decided to revisit this topic.

Close to half of all not-for-profit organizations in BC consist of teams that are not compensated financially; all activities are carried out by board members and/or volunteers. When this is the case, board members will have a direct role to play in supporting the work of the organization. Since a large number of community groups are structured this way, statistically speaking, if you’re on the board of a not-for-profit in BC, chances are it’s a working board.

And if you are, in fact, part of a working board, you may be perpetually daunted and overwhelmed by the number of responsibilities expected of you.

Some of our previous blogs outline tips and tricks for working boards to balance service delivery together with the core functions of organizational governance. However, these tools do not always alleviate the significant time pressures facing volunteers on boards where there are no paid staff. There is simply too much to do. In the face of colossal responsibility lists for board members, many find themselves hyper focused on program delivery, event planning, or setting up a Facebook page. Governance becomes neglected altogether.

But maybe that’s okay. The Nonprofit Lifecycles approach to capacity building articulates distinct stages that every organization will go through. A key distinction that can provide enormous clarity, and shorter task lists, is being clear on whether your organization has a working board because you are a startup, or whether, in fact, your organization is not intended to ever have paid staff members.

In other words, are you building an organization with the hopes of someday having paid staff? (= startup). Or does your operating model comprise 100% volunteers for the foreseeable future? (= volunteer operating model/grassroots organization)

The answer to this question has implications for where a working board can focus, and how to avoid being overwhelmed. Here are some key areas of governance where working boards can be confident focusing their efforts. You’ll note they are very different depending on your answer to the question above:

1) Startup Boards:

Accurate budget/financial forecasting. If you are aspiring to have paid staff at some point, spend time setting up a way to forecast revenues and expenses, and to identify new potential sources of funding. What will be the first paid staff position? When do you hope to have sufficient revenues to pay a salary?

Spread the word. A key challenge for a startup organization is building awareness/interest and community support. Board members of startups can be great champions to draw support, building excitement, and get volunteers and funders interested in your organization.

Set up a tool for quick group decision-making. Startup Boards don’t usually have committees or defined roles and make decisions as a group. However, there are a lot of decisions to make. Figure out how you will make group decisions in a way that is timely, that doesn’t require in-person meetings. Google Drive? Slack channel? Weekly Zoom calls? Or is everyone comfortable making decisions by email?

Support the founder. Startups are typically led by a founder who, frankly, is leading the governance of the organization. That’s fine. Find out what they need from you and support them.

2) Volunteer Operating Model:

Outline board member role descriptions. In this model, it’s likely that each board member may be responsible for leading/running certain programs. Write down these responsibilities, so that board members can maintain their sanity, and also so they can recruit successors to take over when they’re ready to move on.

Set up a Board Calendar. Chart out the entire year and plot out key “governance” functions that need to happen, so they don’t get forgotten. When does the budget need to be created and approved? When is the AGM? When will you meet to set up a team workplan for the year?

Keep track of “governance” decisions. Figure out some way to record decisions at ‘official’ meetings. Yes, all boards should do this. But working Boards are oftentimes making many decisions, and having many conversations, on a weekly basis. Not all of this has to be recorded. However, you should have some kind of official ‘board’ meetings where key decisions are minuted/recorded.

Set up accessible/easy to use financial controls. Working boards can easily fall into the trap of using bank statements for financial decisions and tracking. If it’s unlikely you’re going to have a paid bookkeeper at any point, get some kind of program/software that is easy to use for people without an accounting background, and make sure that every transaction requires at least two people to complete. This protects everyone involved, and supports many board members to be involved in financial oversight without an accounting designation.


Mark Friesen headshot


Mark Friesen

Mark Friesen is the Executive Director at Columbia College, Canada’s longest established International not-for-profit college. He currently facilitates a monthly peer network of leaders dedicated to reimagining governance in the non-profit sector, and currently serves as Interim Chair of the Our Place Inner City Assembly. Mark has served as a volunteer, association founder, and an executive director, and has led fundraising, strategic planning and program development efforts in the sector for over 20 years. During his time at Vantage Point, BC’s leading not-for-profit capacity builder, Mark shifted his focus to governance; working with groups to enhance or redefine organizational decision making. Working with the Crown Agency Board Resourcing Office of BC, Mark guided the province to shift the governance and training material of BC’s public sector organizations away from shareholder accountability and towards governance in the public interest.

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