Improve Your Board: Set Clear Expectations

Date May 16, 2024
Article Authors
Michael B. Ross

Over the past 15 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of nonprofits in leadership development, culture alignment, strategic planning, and succession. I’ve discovered at least one certainty:
For a nonprofit to be successful it must have board members who are engaged, active, and supportive.But most nonprofits don’t set clear expectations for board members in terms of their contribution, behavior, or communication. Without clear expectations people focus on their own agendas, which is understandable, but individual agendas can be disastrous for directors and a CEO attempting to unify their organization behind a common vision.

Good versus Poor: Alex & Mark

Alex and Mark
Alex is a dedicated and effective nonprofit board member, in contrast to Mark, a less-than-ideal counterpart.


Alex is deeply passionate about her nonprofit’s mission. She is actively engaged in the organization’s initiatives, attending events and volunteering time to support various programs. Her passion translates into a strong commitment to the cause, aligning with the organization’s goals. Mark, however, lacks enthusiasm for the mission. He rarely attends events or participates in activities, showing a lack of dedication to the organization’s core purpose.

Key takeaway: Board members must be the biggest supporters and even biggest fans of the nonprofit they represent. If not, being on the board can feel like an obligation and not an opportunity to advance the mission.


Alex excels in strategic planning. During board retreats, she actively contributes to discussions, helping to set clear goals and objectives for the organization. Her ability to articulate
a vision and guide decision-making ensures the nonprofit is on a path to long-term success. On the other hand, Mark is disengaged during strategic planning sessions. He fails to provide meaningful input, leaving the board with vague goals and a lack of direction.

Key takeaway: Board members are leaders of their respective nonprofit. They must be proactive by being observant, asking questions, giving feedback, and advancing initiatives.

Transparency and Collaboration:

Transparency is a hallmark of Alex’s leadership. She fosters open communication among board members, sharing information about challenges and successes. This transparency
builds trust among members, creating a positive and collaborative environment. Mark, however, tends to withhold information and is not forthcoming about challenges. His lack of transparency erodes trust within the board, hindering effective collaboration.

Key takeaway: Board members pushing their own agenda often withhold information and aren’t forthcoming about challenges. Good board members understand that their role is to advance the mission, and they keep their egos in check.

Financial Stewardship:

Alex takes a lead role in overseeing the organization’s budget and financial policies. She actively participates in fundraising, leveraging personal networks to secure resources for the organization. Alex’s financial acumen ensures the nonprofit’s fiscal health. Conversely, Mark lacks involvement in financial matters. He shows little interest in fundraising, neglecting his role in contributing to the organization’s financial stability.

Key takeaway: With no money there’s no mission; and with no mission, no money. Every board member must be dedicated to the financial health of their nonprofit. If they are not contributing in this area, they are inhibiting the organization and its mission.

Community Engagement:

Alex actively builds relationships with local stakeholders, ensuring the nonprofit is responsive to their input. Her community engagement contributes to the organization’s relevance and impact. Meanwhile, Mark does not prioritize community engagement. He neglects to connect with stakeholders, diminishing the nonprofit’s ability to understand and address the community’s concerns.

Key takeaway: Leaders actively put their teams in the best position to succeed. By utilizing their influence in the community, board members broaden communication, raise community awareness, and put their organization in the best position to raise funds, attract volunteers, and meet more people’s needs.

Ethical Leadership:

Alex upholds ethical standards rigorously, ensuring the nonprofit operates with integrity. Her commitment to ethical leadership earns the trust of both board members and the wider community. In contrast, Mark’s approach lacks ethical diligence. He may engage in questionable practices that compromise the organization’s reputation and trustworthiness.

Key takeaway: Board members must have integrity. They are a part of the “face” of their organization. They must maintain the highest standards of excellence in their role.

Choosing Board Members

Alex represents the qualities of a good nonprofit board member – passionate, strategic, transparent, financially responsible, engaged with the community, and committed to ethical leadership.

In contrast, Mark’s disengagement, lack of transparency, financial neglect, community disconnection, and ethical lapses make him a less than-ideal board member. Anyone who has been involved in nonprofit leadership has experienced good and poor board members. But what can nonprofits do to ensure they choose good board members?

Create a board member profile:

Prior to inviting people to be on your board, you must know the qualities, skills, resources, and availability you want in a board member. Put these qualities in detail in writing, and discuss them with executives and board members. The resulting profile will serve as your guiding standard for selecting board members.

Create board member expectations:

In detail, write down your expectations for board members. Here are three key expectations you might set for nonprofit board members:

  • Commitment to the mission: Expect board members to fully align with and champion the organization’s mission. This involves understanding the purpose, values, and goals of the nonprofit and actively contributing to its fulfillment.
  • Active participation and engagement: Set expectations for regular attendance at board meetings and active participation in discussions. Board members should come prepared, contribute meaningfully to strategic conversations, and engage in key initiatives and events.
  • Fundraising Support: Clearly communicate the expectation that board members will actively support fundraising efforts. This may include leveraging personal networks, making personal financial contributions, and participating in donor cultivation to secure necessary resources for the organization.
Adopt a structured interview process:

Here’s a simple interview process you can follow:

  • Application: Request interested individuals to submit a written application including their resume, a letter of intent expressing their interest in the board position, and any relevant experience or skills.
  • Initial screening: Conduct an initial review of applications to shortlist candidates. Look for alignment with the organization’s mission, relevant skills, and a commitment to actively contribute to the board.
  • Phone or video interview: Schedule a phone or video interview with shortlisted candidates to assess their communication skills, enthusiasm for the mission, and the potential for collaboration.
  • In-person interview (if feasible): For local candidates, consider an in-person interview to further gauge their commitment and interpersonal skills. This step allows for a more personal connection and a deeper understanding of the candidate’s motivations.
  • Reference check: Conduct reference checks to verify the candidate’s background and past experience. Speak with individuals who can provide insights into the candidate’s work ethic, collaboration skills, and commitment.
  • Board meeting observation: Invite final candidates to observe a board meeting to witness the dynamics of the board and gain a better understanding of their potential role.
  • Board approval: Present the vetted candidates to the existing board for approval. Discuss the candidates’ strengths, alignment with the organization’s needs, and potential contributions.
  • Orientation and onboarding: Once approved, provide a comprehensive orientation for new board members. This should cover the organization’s history, mission, current initiatives, and expectations related to their participation.

Board members should not have to be held accountable; they should be accountable. But if a board member is not fulfilling expectations, and you have to hold that member accountable, here is a process to follow:

  • One-on-one confrontation: Take the board member aside and confront them. Assume positive intent. Use inquiry, not suspicion. Reiterate expectations.
  • Establish consequences: Every organization is different and therefore consequences will vary. However, there must be consequences. If you permit poor behavior, you promote it.
  • Over-communicate expectations: Ensure you communicate repeatedly the expectations of board members. Do this before and after board meetings. Make sure the board continues to
    understand what and how they are supposed to contribute. The more you communicate, the more board members will focus on meeting expectations.

We can help
HBK Nonprofit Solutions can help you establish these processes for your organization. Contact us to set up a 30-minute complementary consultation where we can discuss effective processes and systems that will improve your board and its performance. Book your consultation at:, or email Mike Estrich at

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