Creating a functioning board is a challenge.  There are many reasons that boards do not fulfill our expectations and perform the way we hope they would. The first is that the job description of a board member is a pretty boring job. Board members have three duties, obedience, loyalty and care. The most clearly defined part of their role is financial oversight. In other words, the position of board member is most importantly about legal accountability; they are tasked to prevent trouble more than promote success. This is, by definition, not compelling. The second reason boards don’t become engaged is the episodic nature of their work. Sure there are times when their work is vital (such as hiring a new Executive Director), but they still meet when there is no challenge, no crisis and no strategic decision to be made. In other words, they still meet at regularly prescribed intervals, even when there is no urgent work to do, leaving them to wonder “Why am I here?” Third, it’s not easy for them to become engaged in the work of the organization because they don’t have first-hand knowledge of it. Of course, they care about the mission and the work, but they don’t get to engage in doing it. And finally, as we know, there can be institutional issues that lead to dysfunction – like personality differences, the imposing role of the founder or an executive director who won’t give up control.

How would you respond if I asked you what you think of your board?

  • It faces challenges, and meetings sometimes lack focus or direction.
  • Its members could use help looking at things with a fresh perspective.
  • There is a core group of hard workers, but also a few stragglers who do not always show up or do the work.
  • Younger and newer board members do not always see a path to joining the leadership.
  • The organization needs a board that ensures that there is more diversity and inclusion.


If your board is isn’t functioning as best as it could, you aren’t able to do your best work. Why? Because good boards:

  • Serve as “brain trusts” whose experience and expertise can help you succeed.
  • Bring resources to the organization, not only monetary donations, but also time and talent, and can extend the reach of your work.
  • Provide strategic direction.
  • Serve as ambassadors and make connections to resources in their networks.

Your board can be transformed

It doesn’t have to be like this. You can have a functioning, supportive board providing the organization the leadership and resources its need. It’s not an overnight process and it may involve bringing in new members and retiring some existing ones, but it is possible. When you approach this task, the first order of business is to get your board on board. A good place to start is an assessment – what is positive about the board’s performance and where do they fall short. Have the members of the board take part in the exercise, so they can see for themselves the challenges in their performance. Create a Board Development (or Governance) Committee to take responsibility for leading this effort. Then you can get to work – create committees that meet between board meetings and engage members in meaningful work, establish leadership paths for younger board members and recruit board members with the skills you need that aren’t represented on the board.

Board Development – Developing an Engaged and Motivated Board

Board leadership isn’t happened upon through luck, nor is it something to be taken for granted. Board building should be an ongoing process with year-round activities and clear strategic goals.

Want to learn more about rebooting your board? Join us for a Foundation Center webinar, Rebooting Your Board Culture, on November 8, 2:00-3:30 pm (EST) to explore problem-solving strategies for improving your board’s performance. In this session you will learn to recognize what motivates board members to excel in their roles, become aware of methods and tools for board strategic assessment, recruitment, orientation and retention. We will also discuss the importance, role and responsibilities of a Board Development Committee.

About the Author(s)

Barbara Paxton Chief Program Officer Governance Matters


Governance Boards

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