Having in place good management will drive success in your organization’s programs, your reason for being. Except for small nonprofits, board members typically won’t be involved in running the programs, but they are expected to provide direction and guidance for them. You should be knowledgeable about the programs you’re running, their overall strategy, and be able to evaluate how effective they are.
Within your mission, you should have develop and maintain a strategy for how you will approach your work and serve your constituents. Make time at board meetings to discuss how well you’re achieving this strategy and if you need to make adjustments. Are your programs running well and meeting the goals you have for them? Are they achieving outcomes that further the mission of the organization? Are your constituents desiring additional or different services that you don’t currently provide? What impact are you having on the people and communities you serve? Could your programs work together more cohesively? Is it worth partnering with another organization for a particular piece of work?
Review the work and achievements of your programs, not just in financial terms, but also in what they’re accomplishing. If one is struggling, consider whether the right leaders and staff are in place, if they have the resources and direction they need, and how management can best support them. If it becomes unsuccessful, or a drain on personnel or financial resources, decide whether it can be restructured or streamlined, or if it’s time to scale it back or wind it down. As your constituents’ needs change, or as your strategy evolves, talk about what new programs you might implement, how to establish them, and what resources they’ll need to be successful and sustainable.
The size and structure of your organization will impact how in-the-weeds the board of directors will get, and what they’ll leave to management. In a smaller organization, you might be expected to interact more directly with program staff to discuss their work and provide feedback. In larger organizations, you’ll more likely interact with the executive director, and possibly senior leadership or directors of programs on a more limited basis. Regardless of context, get into enough detail in your discussions to understand well how the programs are running, what they’re doing well, and what they’re struggling with. Consider if and how you might see the programs in action to better understand and appreciate their inner workings. Maybe you can visit an office or site to see how the work is done and converse with staff, or sit in on a staff meeting or presentation.
Financial metrics tell part of the story about your work, but you should also rely on nonfinancial information to fill in more detail. Look at the number of people you’re serving, the volume of services or materials you’re providing, the results or outcomes those services achieve, and other metrics that tell you how well your organization is meeting its goals. The more you can communicate what your organization is accomplishing, the better you’ll be able to provide oversight and strategic feedback, and the better you’ll be able to advocate for it with the public, donors, and partner organizations.
Effective program oversight will rely partly on your oversight of management, since they’ll be the ones doing the day-to-day program work and leading the organization towards its strategy. Being knowledgeable about the programs will also help you evaluate and provide guidance to management, and help put them in a position to succeed.