From Overalls to Black Tie…building a better board

We field more questions from colleagues about the role of a nonprofit Board than just about anything else. The answer is always, “it depends”.

As a nonprofit organization matures, a healthy Board will grow right along with it. For an organization to be sustainable over the long-term current leaders must face up to the realities of what it will take to successfully lead the organization in the future.  A board member who is valuable at the early stage of development may not have the appropriate skills necessary to be an effective board member of a fully developed organization, and vice versa.

We’d like to share this very visual description of the life stages of board development—From Overalls to Black Tie.

Overalls  The Board of Directors consists of a group of founding board members, the organization has no staff, and board members dedicate a LOT of time to the organization.  The Board’s focus is on building out the organization’s structure, planning is week to week, and fundraising comprises a series of special events aimed at introducing the organization to the community.

Shirtsleeves  At this stage of development the organization will have a very small staff (often only one person). The Board of Directors remains willing to perform hands on work while any future planning is still quarter to quarter. The Board’s focus is on operations while funding comes from events plus smaller grants.

Blue Suit  Staffing is comprehensive and essential to providing programs. Members of the Board contribute their business skills and network to benefit the organization. The Board’s planning is long range, and funding comes from high-level individual donors and foundations.

Black Tie  Staff is highly specialized and qualified. The Board’s role is exclusively governance, and its planning is long term and strategic.  Funding is institutionalized.

Key takeaways:

  • a full understanding of an organization’s appropriate board type helps to guide the board recruitment process;

  • understanding what type of board you are invited to serve on gives you a better understanding of roles, responsibilities, and expectations.

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