A central part of what a board of directors does, falls under management oversight – providing direction for the organization and guiding how it pursues its mission and goals. Some of this happens largely at the board level, such as defining what the organization’s mission is, but much of it will involve working with management and senior staff, such as developing and enforcing policies and procedures for staff and board members to follow.
Defining the organization’s mission will primarily happen when the organization is founded, but may change over time if you meet some of your original goals, or if circumstances in your community or the constituents you serve require you to change the programs or services you offer. The board of directors should write a mission statement that communicates your organization’s goals, who you serve, and the means by which you achieve your goals.
The board is also responsible for hiring, supporting, and evaluating the chief executive. This position should be filled by someone with knowledge of the industry, your constituents’ needs, and the leadership and management skills to run an organization of your size. The chief executive will be much more in-the-weeds than the board will be, so he or she will need to be able to effectively oversee program managers and staff. Take this into account when you’re hiring for the position, and make sure the current executive has the resources and professional support needed to do the job well. The board is in charge of setting the chief executive’s compensation each year; you can read best practices for setting compensation here.
Have policies and procedures in place to ensure ethical integrity and compliance with legal requirements. Legal compliance is a minimum baseline, but you also want staff to act in ways that will enhance your organization’s reputation and public standing. This starts with having a culture of pursuing excellence, and hiring staff and volunteers who are naturally motivated to do their jobs well and pursue your mission. You’ll also need to maintain solid internal controls and policies to guide how things are run. Common policies to have include conflicts of interests policies, compensation policies, whistleblower policies, document retention policies, and gift acceptance policies. Consider whether your organization needs anything more.
Finally, put a high priority on maintaining a skilled board of directors. Determine how many directors you need to accomplish your work effectively, without getting too large and bogged down with bureaucracy. Find board members with knowledge of your industry and the needs of your constituents, and who have the skills to oversee the organization. There’s some overlap between what you’ll look for in board members, and what you’ll look for in your chief executive and senior staff, but remember that you’ll be managing the organization at different levels. Management is in charge of running day-to-day operations, and the board is in charge of high-level oversight, charting a course for the organization, and setting a strategy for achieving your mission. Consider whether you need board members with specific expertise, such as fundraising, evaluating programs, or purchasing or developing real estate. Depending on the circumstances, these board members may do a significant portion of their work on a specific committee, or advising the board how to pursue one of their projects or goals.
Other components of board oversight, such as program and financial oversight, are driven by the mission you develop, and will be supported by the chief executive and other management and practices you have in place. Having this down pat will make the rest of your work smoother, and putting in the effort here will pay dividends as you get into the rest of your work.