What are some best practices for board operations?

Implementing “best practices” for building and running a board effectively can help you further your cause with confidence. Here are some top issues to consider.

Board size

Federal law doesn’t dictate board size, but state laws often establish a minimum (typically one to three members).

Beyond legal requirements, the number of board members will depend largely on your organization’s needs. Before you decide on size, it’s best to think about your needs. Do you want to create a diverse board with varied skills, knowledge and experience to support your organization and match the needs of a diverse constituency? To determine the right number for your organization, think about the dynamics between members and their ability to accomplish tasks. Consider whether adding more will help or hinder in this regard.


A quorum is the minimum number of members that must be present at a meeting to make the proceedings of that meeting valid. This is typically established in an organization’s bylaws, although in some cases state law will determine the quorum. Often the quorum for a meeting of the board is one-third of its total members, or two directors (whichever is higher).

Effective meeting planning

To ensure full participation and thoughtful decision making in the best interest of the organization, board meetings should always be carefully planned, facilitated and documented for implementation and follow-up.

Here’s how you can keep meetings on track:

  1. Begin with a clear, focused agenda. Agendas should address meeting topics and outline goals for discussion. Deliver the agenda to board members at least a week in advance. You may also want to compile an organizational update, key background needed for decision-making points and highlights of the latest “good news.”
  2. During the meeting, stick closely to the agenda to make good use of everyone’s time. Focus on getting results and critical decision-making at every meeting.
  3. Make attendance mandatory. Develop policies around meetings and hold members accountable. If a meeting is scheduled but agenda items have changed, don’t waste members’ time. Reschedule for another, more appropriate day.
  4. Ask for board input on the agenda. This allows members to include topics of interest, increasing the likelihood of attendance and helping to keep them engaged while there. This can also help the executive director better understand where members stand on important issues.
  5. Schedule time for discussion and networking among members. Give members the opportunity to get to know each other and build their own professional networks.

Executive directors and founders as members

While an executive director is often a member of the board, involved in board discussions and information sharing, he or she is rarely granted a vote. After all, the board is technically the executive director’s employer and conflicts of interest could arise. To guard against this, both the board and the executive director should act independently from each other – the executive director as leader of the organization and the board in a governance role. Because of their passion and commitment, founders may want to directly exert their influence over the organization as a member of the board. Ultimately, the answer to this question rests in the founder’s ability to use his or her skills and experience to move the organization’s mission forward at the governance level. As a board member, a founder can be granted a vote. This means he or she should be able to effectively address the organization’s needs and provide guidance and support.

Term limits

Term limits give both the board member and the organization an opportunity to determine if continued service is in the best interest of both parties. To ensure the organization’s ability to bring in fresh perspectives and expertise and foster its ability to be flexible and responsive to changing needs, many nonprofits set defined terms for their board members. These typically range from one to four years. However, some nonprofits choose not to adopt a limit – typically when an organization will benefit from the continued involvement of strong, active members. When developing policy in this area, think carefully about the needs of your organization and your funders.

Board committees

Board committees help optimize individual expertise and diversity by allowing the board to use resources more effectively. By operating in smaller groups, members can often accomplish more than if the board acted as a whole, particularly where issues are complex or numerous.

Certain types of committees may be required by law. In California, for example, charities with gross revenues exceeding $2 million must establish an audit committee.

Board orientation

Board orientation is critical to getting organization-wide buy-in to your mission, values, organizational identity and strategic plans. It helps improve communication and participation, and it empowers new members with the tools they need to steward your nonprofit in the community. Orientation prepares your board members to provide informed guidance and support in governance issues, allowing your organization to make better use of their expertise.

Remember, board orientation is key:

  1. Develop an orientation manual outlining what each member needs to know about service and your organization.
  2. Give your board the tools they need to excel. Regularly update members on key organizational issues and good works.
  3. Use mentoring and ongoing education to help members feel prepared.

Learn more! Get Getting On Board with Effective Orientation (www.boardsource.org). This BoardSource Toolkit can help you design your board orientation materials and training sessions.

Executive director evaluations

Executive director evaluations are a significant component of a board’s responsibilities. They are critical to ensuring the executive director is in sync with a board, and driving the organization forward, toward its mission. Evaluations also help to clarify expectations and set goals for the future.

For more information about executive director evaluations, read Managing People.

Boards & Governance FAQ

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