Last week, we conducted research for a client wanting to strengthen their board. We examined over 40 websites of nonprofits who are in the same space as our client to get a sense for the type of people those organizations engaged. Based on what we read, we have several observations that can help all nonprofits as they consider who serves on their boards and the impact that those board members have on the organization they serve.
- When you recruit a board member, you marry their reputation.
One of the board member bios we read referenced a close working relationship that this person had with a high-profile person in his industry – a person who has since been accused of sexual harassment and abuse. While the board member may or may not still have a professional relationship with the accused, there is no reason to include this information on the nonprofit’s website. At best, the relationship is not relevant to the nonprofit’s work. At worst, the board member’s relationship with the accused has the potential to negatively impact (by association) the reputation of the nonprofit. As a precautionary measure, all charitable organizations should constantly refresh itself on any reputation risk exposure they have based on their associations, including board members.
- Keep it fresh.
The website of another organization we reviewed included the bio of a board member’s work reporting on the upcoming U.S. Presidential Inauguration – of 2017. Seeing that the organization had not updated this page in four years made us wonder what other information was outdated on the website and not readily available (e.g., annual reports, contact lists). Prospective donors often read a website before they contact the organization with any questions related to a potential gift. If they find outdated information on the website, their interest in the organization may wane and as a result, the nonprofit could have lost a big gift.
It is important for a nonprofit to keep their publicly available information up to date, as it is the first (and sometimes the only) data that a donor will review before they make a decision about contacting you. According to media reporting, billionaire MacKenzie Scott made 384 donations totaling over $4.1B in charitable donations largely without direct contact to the organizations she was considering. Instead, her team of advisers relied on information in the public domain. What a significant loss it would be if a nonprofit organization missed out on a transformational gift because their information was out of date.
- Engage a diversity of people.
Many of the organizations we reviewed were policy-focused organizations that have board members who are former government officials, most of whom appeared to be white men over the age of 50. Having a homogenous board limits an organization’s networks and ability to reach a broader audience of potential supporters. It also puts the organization at significant risk for myopic thinking and conveys that diversity of perspective is not a priority. Setting aside these critical strategic issues, many people are very attuned to the imperative for diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of society – and potential supporters may be very put off when they see images of board members where no one looks like them.
A nonprofit’s board may be the best asset it has to generate fresh ideas, open doors to new networks, and more. That said, it can also be a weighty liability that is tightly aligned with the behaviors and attributes of its individual members. Every nonprofit organization should review what it communicates about its boards on a regular basis (at least every quarter) to ensure that it is appropriately leveraging its best advantage for maximum advantage.