Today marks the ninth release of BoardSource’s biennial study, Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices. Formerly known as the Nonprofit Governance Index, Leading with Intent takes an in-depth look at the current practices and trends of nonprofit boards. The 2017 report and findings show some good progress on the part of today’s boards, and we congratulate you for that. Other findings, however, indicate a lack of commitment to stated priorities.
Key findings from Leading with Intent 2017
- Boards are no more diverse than they were two years ago, and current recruitment priorities indicate this is unlikely to change. Despite reporting high levels of dissatisfaction with current board demographics — particularly racial and ethnic diversity — boards are not prioritizing demographics in their recruitment practices. Nearly a fifth of all chief executives report they are not prioritizing demographics in their board recruitment strategy, despite being dissatisfied with their board’s racial and ethnic diversity.
- Boards are starting to embrace their roles as advocates for their missions, but stronger leadership is still needed. More than half of all boards are actively working in concert with staff leadership to educate policymakers on behalf of their organization, but most organizations do not have formal policies around advocacy. Both chief executives and board chairs cite board member ambassadorship as a top three area for board improvement.
- Strong understanding of programs is linked to stronger engagement, strategy, and external leadership — including fundraising. The board’s knowledge of the organization’s programs relates to board performance in several key areas: strategic thinking and planning, commitment and engagement, and fundraising and community outreach. This points to the importance of cultivating a deep understanding of the organization’s programs and operating environment through ongoing board education.
- Boards that assess their performance regularly perform better on core responsibilities. Boards that assess themselves get higher grades across all areas of board performance. Emphasizing the importance of regular board assessment, boards that assessed their performance more recently (within the past two years) report higher performance scores than those that assessed less recently.
- Chief executives and board chairs agree that the board has an impact on organizational performance, and that two particular board characteristics matter most: the board’s understanding of its roles and responsibilities, and the board’s ability to work as a collaborative team toward shared goals. For both chief executives and board chairs, these two characteristics strongly correlate to their perceptions of the board’s overall impact on organizational performance. While there is no evidence that this relationship is causal, it does document a perceived connection between board performance and organizational performance, and may point to high-leverage opportunities for board development and growth.
Many approach the report, which is focused on four major aspects of board leadership — people, work, culture, and impact — with curiosity. “How does my board compare to our peers in its composition, culture, and practices?” That’s a good start, but we encourage you to do more — to ask yourself “What do these findings tell us about how our board needs to change? Are we as committed as we need to be to exceptional leadership?” The final section of the report is designed to help you begin that reflection process and to engage your colleagues in the conversation. Based on our findings, we recommend the following five priorities — and provide questions to help you get things underway.
- Make it an ongoing priority to deepen your board’s understanding of your organization’s programs — what you do, why it matters, and how you know you are having an impact.
- Think strategically and creatively about how to position board members for stronger leadership outside the boardroom through fundraising, advocacy, and broader community outreach.
- Start a conversation about what a commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity would look like for your board, your organization, and your work in the community.
- Ensure that every board member starts his or her service with a firm understanding of his or her roles and responsibilities — both what they are and what they aren’t — and continually reinforce the importance of role understanding throughout every member’s service.
- Work to cultivate a culture of trust, respect, and mutual accountability within your board by creating opportunities for your members to engage with each other in a way that deepens their understanding of each other and their shared commitment to the organization’s work.
We encourage you to download the report now and begin exploring our findings. Use the insights to start a conversation with your board. Download the 2017 study.
Leading With Intent in the news:
- BoardSource Finds a New Platform for Action in the Face of Declining Diversity | Nonprofit Quarterly | Ruth McCambridge and Cyndi Suarez | September 6, 2017
- Nonprofits Boards Are Very Rich And Very White | FastCompany | Ben Paynter | September 6, 2017
- Diversity Among Nonprofit Leaders Still a Long Way Off, Report Says | Chronicle of Philanthropy | Drew Lindsay | September 6, 2017