How to Build a Non-Profit Board

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Winter 2012-2013

Creating an effective non-profit or foundation board doesn’t just happen. It has to be carefully planned and managed.


While there isn’t a magic formula for the creation of a successful non-profit or foundation board, the caliber of an organization’s board members can directly relate to its effectiveness and efficiency.

“When you make good choices of board members and they join for the right reasons, everything else may take care of itself,” says Michael Penfield, Managing Director of U.S. Bank’s Charitable Service Group. 


How you structure your board may depend on the type of organization. A foundation is typically a private non-profit organization funded by a small group of people, such as a family; public charities receive funding from a wide range of sources, including the public at large.


When two of Penfield’s clients decided to create a private foundation more than a decade ago, they recruited their spouses and adult children for the board. The board often clashed as a result of each family member having a passionate opinion on which causes to support, but they made sure every voice was heard and respected.


The children eventually took over governance roles after their parents’ deaths. Today, the legacy of these two clients lives on in their teenage grandchildren who dutifully serve the foundation like their parents did.



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Winter 2012-2013

Not every organization boasts a family legacy like this multi-generational foundation, but its story illustrates what every charity or foundation needs to stand the test of time: a diverse set of devoted individuals with a strong unifying vision. “The key to this non-profit’s success was the common commitment to service underlying their different perspectives,” Penfield says.


Here are some criteria you may want to consider to create a successful board:


Recruit Diversity

While all board members may possess a passion for serving people and a diligent work ethic, the best boards comprise members with diverse backgrounds and skills, says Sally Godfrey, Vice President of U.S. Bank’s Charitable Services Group. A homogeneous board can result in a narrow perspective and near-sightedness. “With communities being more diverse, boards need to reflect that same diversity and be able to give a voice to different races, ethnicities, ages and genders,” she says.


Looking at what the existing board lacks and filling those gaps achieves diversity of thought, Penfield says.

Find Team Players

A variety of personalities and perspectives means inevitable differences in opinion. Even with different types of board member personalities, a uniform commitment to the organization’s mission is crucial.


For this reason, board members should be team players and make decisions that will benefit the organization as a whole, not just themselves as individuals, says Rebecca Bibleheimer, Relationship Manager for U.S. Bank’s Charitable Service Group.


What to Consider Before Joining a Non-Profit Board


Ask for Recommendations

With fiduciary responsibilities at stake, non-profits and foundations often recruit from within their own networks to find people they trust. Godfrey advises asking current board members for recommendations of individuals who might be a good fit, such as a friend, relative or neighbor.


“There needs to be a large degree of integrity and loyalty to the entity they’re serving, and you won’t always know that about someone prior to them joining,” says Godfrey, who stresses the importance of asking prospective candidates to include several references with their resumes.

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Winter 2012-2013

Recruit Community Leaders

Community leaders provide another good source for finding board members, Bibleheimer says. Local business people, attorneys and accountants who are already engaged in the community make good candidates. Their reputation precedes them in most instances, making it easier to evaluate their character. In addition, these individuals come with an extensive network of contacts, which may prove beneficial for fundraising.


Look for Candidates With a Passion for the Cause

Apart from good character, find candidates who will join the organization because they believe in the entirety of its mission and are willing to work for it.


“We don’t want just bodies here,” Penfield says. “Unfortunately some individuals join a board just to gain contacts to further their own business or because they are interested in only one aspect of the organization.” Instead, potential board members should be generous with their time, attending meetings and volunteering for events, he says.


Clearly Define Roles and Responsibilities

Before joining a board, potential members should understand basic roles and responsibilities,

according to, which trains more than 60,000 non-profit board leaders each year. That includes defining how each potential member will be involved with the following areas of the organization:


  • Mission
  • Strategy
  • Funding and public image
  • Board composition
  • Program oversight
  • Financial oversight
  • CEO oversight
  • Board structure
  • Meetings

Implement a Vision


The Perfect Mix

While achieving the right board chemistry and formulating an optimal plan isn’t an easy task, both are absolutely essential in creating an efficient charitable organization. Once a solid foundation of people is established, you are ready to move forward with the business of bettering your community.


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