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  • Pat Libby

Successful nonprofit governance is all about collaboration

Last week I schlepped out to the Coastal Roots Farm at the invitation of Mike Gellman, to talk to his Mastermind group – a cadre of nonprofit leaders who are in the relatively early stages of launching their respective organizations. My presentation was supposed to be on the topic of board governance but I soon found myself focusing on board staff collaboration.


Why did I home in on collaboration? Because it’s an often overlooked yet essential concept for leading an effective nonprofit.*


Of course, all nonprofits need to establish and maintain a board where each member fully understands and performs their fiduciary duties. That’s essential and no small task. I see many board members who haven’t got a clue about what their legal duties are which is easily remedied with a little education. If you’re fuzzy on any of this, this video should help.


However, when I think back to what others thought made me a successful nonprofit leader, it’s all about how I drew upon the magnificent brains of board members and community volunteers who dedicated themselves to whatever work I was advancing at the time.


And it hasn’t only worked for me – I’ve seen this collaborative dynamic in action at other nonprofits as well. San Diego’s Audubon Society’s Conservation Committee, which is spearheaded by board and staff members and populated by additional volunteers, is just one shining example.

It proves time and again that the smartest person in the room isn’t the person with the most brilliant thought; it’s the one who can work in partnership with a group of inspired people to surface, discuss, and shape ideas that will move the needle forward.


Fear and ignorance are the key factors that prevent this type of engagement. Fear that board members will overstep their boundaries and ignorance about how to utilize volunteers effectively. The result is a Mount Kilimanjaro-size pile of lost opportunities. 


Well-run nonprofits establish governance structures where board members are attuned to good organization hygiene (policies, procedures, compliance issues, etc.) AND are fully engaged in working with the staff to help develop strategy.     


In these organizations, board members are recruited for their knowledge, passion, and commitment. They want to use their talents to work synergistically with the staff to advance the work.   


So, how does a nonprofit orchestrate this dynamic?


  1. Naming their strategic priorities. I’ve never met a nonprofit that isn’t a work in progress. Organizations are always looking to refine what they do, how they do what they do, and how they talk about what they do. Figuring out your organization’s strategic priorities is the first step.

  2. Identifying people who can help advance those priorities. These may be people who are experts in your field, have lived experience with your cause, have technical expertise, and/or have a specific skill set that is directly related to your work. You need to make a list of talented people who you think will be passionate about helping you.

  3. Recruiting those folks with clear expectations about what you need from them. If you are recruiting for a board position, what exactly are your expectations of board members? How often will they meet? How do you want to use their talents and in what specific ways? Please don’t make the mistake of recruiting people because you think their name recognition will bring you some type of prestige. Just last week I resigned from a board after sitting in meeting after meeting where their only request was that I nod like a bobblehead to presentations about their work. It wasn’t a good use of my time.

  4. Organizing effective working committees where board and staff members actively collaborate. This last one may take some practice. You don’t want to blur the lines between what the staff and board/volunteers do, but you do want to use meetings to talk strategically about how to best advance the work. You want to embrace the concept of strategic thought partner in such a way that a collegial and open atmosphere produces rich and concrete ideas about whatever areas of work you are concentrating on.


Regardless of whether your nonprofit has been around for ages or is just forming, think about how you can draw upon the strengths of others to bring fresh energy and ideas to your work.



*These ideas dovetail with Richard Chait’s notion of “generative governance” which he, Bill Ryan, and Barbara Taylor first discussed in the book “Governance as Leadership.”  


Pat Libby is a change management consultant working principally with nonprofit corporations. She is author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You, Oxford University Press, The Lobbying Strategy Handbook, second edition, Oxford University Press, and Cases in Nonprofit Management, SAGE. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

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