What are the attributes of a high performing board?

With so many specific issues, documents, and decisions clamoring for their attention, board members rarely have the time to reflect on their overall role within the organization. To ensure the optimal performance of a nonprofit board, each member should understand and adopt the following “best practices” guidelines.

The role of the board is clear and distinct from the role of the staff. In a nutshell, the board’s primary role is oversight and guidance; the staff’s primary role is management.

Of course, the line between oversight and management can be fuzzy at times. The best approach is to see these two important roles as parallel and noncompeting. Everyone has the same goal in mind fulfilling the organization’s mission and each has a specific role. Being clear about those goals paves the way for a smooth relationship between board and staff.

Board members have three “hats” and only one can be worn at a time. These “hats” represent the three types of roles a board member can have within an organization: oversight, implementation, and volunteer.

The oversight hat is worn when the full board meets to make high-level decisions related to the organization’s mission. The board, acting as a unified group rather than as separate individuals, sets the direction and then uses its authority to steer the organization on the appropriate course.

The implementation hat is worn when the individual board member has been granted specific authority to act on the full board’s behalf. This typically involves a board delegating a task, such as helping to select which firm will conduct the next financial audit or directing the search for a new chief executive.

In most organizations, the board looks to the staff to implement its decisions. The same standard applies to tasks the board delegates to one of its members. When wearing their implementation hats, board members act as staff members would they fulfill the task according to the board’s directions.

The volunteer hat is always worn when board members serve as organizational volunteers when they assist with operational details such as stuffing envelopes, writing articles, setting up and promoting events, raising funds, and so forth. When wearing this hat, they may be accountable to the chief executive, a staff member, or another volunteer. During these volunteer hours, board members must not try to take charge or run the program simply because they are board members.

The board is clear about the organization’s stakeholders (those to whom it feels accountable) and its primary beneficiaries. Board members need to distinguish between the people who are stakeholders (for example, members, donors, or alumni) and those the organization serves (for example, students, families, or the community). In some nonprofits, the stakeholders and the primary beneficiaries are one and the same. In trade associations, for example, the board is accountable to the members who pay dues, and the association’s work also focuses on serving the same group.

The hoard provides clear direction. Through the guidelines it issues, the formal policies it adopts, and the official stands it takes on issues, the board delineates and communicates the organization’s mission, purpose, and priorities. There should be no question about the organization’s ultimate goals .

The chief executive is responsible for achieving goals within par am eters established by the hoard. The board needs one person the chief executive to assume responsibility for getting the organization to where the board has determined it should be. When the lines of accountability are clear, no one can make excuses.

The chief executive often hires people to help fulfill those responsibilities, then holds them accountable in a management system that best fits his or her style .

The hoard chair manages the hoard with support from the chief executive. Every team, even one made up of all-stars, needs a leader. The board chair manages the board, and the chief executive manages the organization .

Research shows that higher-performing organizations have board-oriented chief executives. When the chair and the chief executive stick to their respective roles and provide mutual support to one another, the whole organization works better .

Committees serve the hoard’s needs, not the staff’s needs. Committees, with the assistance of staff, should speak to the board not for it. Committees are useful only when they help the board do its work better. When not action-oriented, their primary job is to formulate good recommendations for board consideration . Task forces, which are designed for a specific purpose and then dissolved after the mission is accomplished, often offer an efficient alternative to committees.

Board meetings are well’planned. Meetings should include board-friendly materials sent in advance, concise agendas, clear results, and time for board fellowship. Advance preparation can make board meetings productive and enjoyable. Board members like to go home feeling that they made good, informed decisions that will advance the organization’s mission .

Board members are carefully selected, oriented, and trained. It

takes a deliberate effort to find people with the motivations, values, experience, and skills that will help the organization reach new levels of excellence .

High-performing boards provide orientation even before the elections, so candidates are not surprised or disappointed when they begin their jobs. Post-election orientation and ongoing board training keep board members focused on their contributions to organizational success .

No matter how professional its staff is, a nonprofit organization depends on interested and engaged board members. That’s why boards must also assume the responsibility for evaluating their own performance and developing strategies for improvement .


1. Board chair, distribute these “best practices” for discussion at your next board meeting.

2. Board members, invite an informed volunteer to attend a full board meeting and several committee meetings; ask for an honest assessment of how well the board demonstrated its understanding of these statements.

3. Board chair, challenge each board member to develop a personal list often indicators of success for your board.