Perspectives and Practices to Support Good Governance

In my continuing quest to make the concept of governance the core focus of every board of directors, here are some suggestions to shift your focus and approach with the board you work with:

  1. Embrace Governance as the core focus of every board – in addition to fund development or other support roles. Don’t assume that board members understand their duties and roles; most likely, they are not arriving with an inherent understanding of the board role.
  2. Recognize and talk about the difference between roles of the board as a whole, and individual board members: Governance (“steering” the boat) and Support (“rowing” the boat outside board meetings), and the difference between doing the work, managing the work, and governing the work. (For more on that concept, see the great Nonprofit Quarterly:
  3. Don’t just say “the board needs to fundraise” and leave them to figure out how; instead create an organizational fund development plan (working with appropriate staff or resource people), including clear roles for individual board members to engage outside the board meeting in various parts of the fund development “cycle”.
  4. Clearly state what is expected of board members – and develop those expectations as a board exercise, first. How many hours each month are anticipated to be spent in board or committee meetings? Are personal contributions expected from each board member? Will board members need to engage in fundraising, like asking others for money, or helping with fundraising events?
  5. Orient board members and provide them with ongoing support for at least a year. In addition to key organizational documents in a binder or online platform, hold a live in-person meeting to talk about governance and the work of the organization. Consider a “board buddy” or mentor approach.
  6. Develop a succession/executive transition plan, starting with a “what if” emergency plan, and include the Executive Director, board officers (the next chair, treasurer, etc.) and any key staff positions.
  7. Regularly engage in planning and organizational assessment activities (ranging from annual operational planning to longer-term, strategic planning depending on your organizational capacity), starting with a conversation about what is working and what needs work. Consider gathering input from key stakeholders like clients, donors, funding sources, and staff.
  8. Use Montana Nonprofit Association Principles and Practices to check up and fine tune key parts of your operations (starting with Governance/Leadership and Financial Management); look for those under the Resource Center tab at
  9. Review and work to understand the IRS form 990 BEFORE it is submitted, and plan ahead to allow time for that review and approval. This is not only a key document for IRS oversight, but Is also used by many donors and funders to understand your organization – so make sure it tells the story you want to tell!
  10. Evaluate and provide feedback to the Executive regularly, in formal and informal ways, to avoid surprises, keep lines of communication open, and ensure effective use of resources. When an Executive is new, conduct these conversations at 30, 60 and 90 days, then before the end of their probationary period, then at least annually thereafter.