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Four Steps to a Better Board, Part 1: Determine Your Focus

In this four-part series, GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group team explains a systemic approach to developing a fully-functioning board capable of handling its governance responsibilities efficiently and effectively.

GCN's approach to board development follows four steps:

1. Determine the focus of the board
2. Establish the board’s organization structure
3. Secure needed board member resources
4. Support working relationships among board members & key staff

This article explains how to determine the focus of the board.

The primary responsibility of nonprofit boards is governance: providing oversight, control and strategic direction for the organization. To do this, the board can focus on any number of governance responsibilities, including but by no means limited to policy, strategy, funding, financials, community awareness, programmatic oversight, board development and executive director accountability. Determining the focus of the board is the critical first step. This focus comes from answering three questions:

  • What is the board’s governance role?
  • What are the priorities for board efforts?
  • What are the specific goals that will direct the board’s work annually?

Define Governance Role

As there is no one board model, each board must decide how best to position itself to govern. It is therefore critical that the board define its governance role based on real-world conditions and limitations: the nonprofit’s stage of development, the distribution of skills and experience among board and staff, and the challenges presently facing them. For example: will the board be involved in operational issues, either because the nonprofit is just starting out or has limited staff? Will the board develop a partnership with the executive director to manage the nonprofit? Or will the board be restricted to the highest level of oversight, removing itself from day-to-day operations?


By determining a focus, your board takes its first steps to better gover​nance, smarter growth & greater effectiveness.

Once the board establishes its governance role, it needs to prioritize: which of the governance areas it identified as part of its role requires the most time and attention? 

Those priorities should be developed by looking at the organization’s most pressing needs, the number of board members it has, and the skills, experiences and interests they bring with them. Another factor to consider: board members are volunteers, with busy lives and limited time to spare. An established set of priorities creates a framework for board efforts that assures the board’s valuable resources go to what’s most important.

Develop Annual Goals

The final step in board focus is developing annual goals. Most nonprofit goal-setting involves operating targets for the executive director and the organization as a whole—which does not necessarily translate into specific goals for the board. But if the board is to be held accountable for contributing actively to the nonprofit’s success, it also needs targets to work toward and measure against. Without specific goals, the board may settle into a “review and advise” posture which, while valuable, does not share the burden of organizational achievement.

Board goals may include:

  • Developing a strategic plan, working closely with staff
  • Recruiting needed board members with defined skills and experiences
  • Committing to a specific fundraising target for the board
  • With staff, preparing a marketing and communications plan
  • Establishing an executive director succession plan

These goals should include specific outcomes by which to measure the contribution of the board, and as such, the means to hold the board accountable distinct from staff efforts and general operations.

By determining a focus, your board takes its first steps on a journey to better governance, smarter growth and a more effective nonprofit.

Working with a diverse group of organizations, GCN’s Nonprofit Consulting Group team is uniquely positioned to help nonprofit and philanthropic leaders build strong organizations that accelerate growth and social impact through a broad range of projects that help build capacity, navigate change, and maximize impact. Learn more at GCN.org/Nonprofit-Consulting-Group and contact us at [email protected]

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