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  • Caryn Bosson

Growing up is hard to do: Next-stage nonprofits and shifts in board roles

While the archetypical Silicon Valley origin story involves a couple of guys working in a garage, nonprofits tend to be launched by a few people talking passionately around a kitchen table. In both cases, it’s a humble beginning to a profound journey that tests the characters, energy, brains, staying power, and very souls of those involved. And that’s the joy of it.

Whether brought together by a founder who’s rallied friends and allies, or a group of like-minded people who’ve become activated, the volunteers involved in founding an organization are in a heady time of purpose and excitement.

For board members of early-stage nonprofits, involvement requires all-consuming dedication -- paid back with a rewarding feeling of purpose that few other opportunities afford.

Then their organizations grow up.

A friend once said after her youngest child left for college, “I feel as though I’ve been laid off.” There’s a nonprofit equivalent of this clear entry into another stage of life: it comes when the organization has reached the point of hiring its first staff leaders.

With paid staff at the helm, board members’ roles must change. While not actually “laid off” by any means, they aren’t needed in the same way anymore. It’s time to redirect attention and energy to playing more of a governance role -- or all kinds of frustrations are in store.

In a next-stage organization that has hired its first staff leader:

  • Instead of leading programs themselves, board members need to work with the executive leader to set overall goals;

  • Instead of making sure that the organization is “doing it well,” board members need to ensure that the staff leader has what he/she needs to “run it well;”

  • Instead of paying attention to the operational details, board focus needs to be on financial oversight, fundraising, playing ambassador and door-opener roles, and strategically setting and tracking success metrics.

This is a pivot that many board members aren’t prepared for. In fact, it’s a rare board that makes it through this next stage of development without some (or a lot) of tension.

Is your organization in this stage?

If any of this sounds familiar, here are some practices to help you navigate:

  • This is the time to get board “job descriptions” and term-limits in place so that board members have a chance to reflect and determine if they are the right fit for what the organization needs in its current stage of development;

  • This is the time for an annual board self-evaluation, as well as an annual evaluation of the executive director;

  • Goal setting is best done through a robust board-staff-community strategic planning process;

  • Board leadership is more important now than ever, with strong officers, and regular communication between the staff leader and the board chair.

I’ve found this article from Board Source to be very helpful in describing the Three Stages of Nonprofit Board’s Life Cycle.

Founding board members: change is hard, and so is growing up. But the greater impact from a well-run next-stage organization can make it all worthwhile.

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