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Make a difference as a nonprofit board member

Stephen Chambers

Leaders are frequently invited to sit on the boards of nonprofit organisations. No matter how big or how small – from local youth sports groups to international aid operations – nonprofits can have real social impact. But how they make that difference is largely dictated by the board members overseeing operations, and by how efficient – or inefficient – they are.

If you approach your role fully prepared to shake things up, you will be setting the organisation up to seize and exploit every opportunity, say William F Meehan III and Kim Starkey Jonker, writing for McKinsey Quarterly.

In a climate where public sector organisations are facing harsh economies, nonprofits are in the enviable position of discovering new sources of financial support. They also have the opportunity to build growth using strong digital frameworks.

So, if the board you’ve joined isn’t thriving, it’s time to find out why.


Extensive experience in a commercial environment won’t necessarily fully equip you for the rapidly changing nonprofit world. New nonprofit board members can be reluctant to stick their head above the parapet in group discussions for fear of appearing ill-informed, but it’s a fear worth overcoming if you take your role seriously. Even if the questions you ask seem obvious or stupid, they must still be asked.

“Keep asking them until you figure out what the smart questions are. Then demand answers to the smart questions, or if you don’t get support from your fellow board members when you ask those questions, then resign,” say Meehan and Jonker.

Each individual organisation will warrant specific approaches, but there are fundamental factors that are relevant to all nonprofit organisations.


1) Know and understand the organisation’s mission. Without the focus on shareholder value of private sector companies, nonprofits’ purpose and direction can drift. Ask questions to establish whether the organisation has a finely tuned mission statement to keep operations on track. All board members should be familiar with it, and it should be revised regularly.

In organisations with woolly focus it’s common for mission creep to take hold, especially after initial successes, with experimentation into areas way beyond preliminary goals. An attractive funding opportunity, for instance, could lead to ill-informed choices that undermine the core success of the organisation.

2) Clarify the organisation’s theory of change. How does the organisation’s work help to achieve its mission? The theory of change should be a thorough breakdown of the initiatives and activities that make a difference to the organisation’s beneficiaries. It needs to be developed with the engagement of all stakeholders. When it’s in place it becomes possible to assess the organisation’s individual activities logically and objectively, as well as spot burgeoning issues that could affect overall outcomes.

3) Establish a regular measurement of impact. The corporate world uses all kinds of metrics, such as share prices, to calculate performance. But, without the focus on financial gain, it’s not something nonprofit boards often excel at. A different cause and effect approach is required:

“In recent years, randomised controlled trials (RCTs) — studies that test an intervention against a counterfactual case in which it is not in effect — have emerged as a powerful way to demonstrate whether a nonprofit intervention actually works. Boards should encourage this approach.”

The authors cite the Pratham organisation, which improves learning outcomes among children in India. It has made considerable investment in the RCT approach, providing evidence that has attracted major funding.

4) Make sure the right energy is driving the organisation. Every nonprofit needs people and resources to deliver its mission. It’s imperative to check regularly that these are efficiently feeding the operation. Start by looking at the board members themselves – are they all contributing sufficiently to the work of the organisation? Are they giving time and energy to committee work, fundraising events, contact with donors, or are they in place by default rather than design?

Then examine the organisation’s employees:

“Board members have a special duty to insist on both paying highly effective executives appropriately, so they can be retained, and ensuring that underperforming employees move on.”

This is a prime time to become involved in the nonprofit sector, with scope for real change on a societal level. If you are going to serve on a board, it will be far more effective and satisfying if you fully engage with all aspects of your chosen organisation’s mission. Ask the big questions, challenge decisions, and inject positive energy to help it achieve its potential. And if it’s not working, know when to quit.

Source Article: The Four Questions To Ask When Serving On A Nonprofit Board
Author(s): William F Mehan III and Kim Starkey Jonker
Publisher: McKinsey Quarterly