Five lessons nonprofit boards should learn from each other

By Haylin Belay

The Brief
Every cause and organization requires unique strengths and traits of its board. Understanding these differences should be the key to building your own nonprofit’s board. From diversity to appropriate messaging, here are the five lessons you should learn from other nonprofit boards. 

nonprofit boards

While all nonprofit boards face issues of funding, management and recruitment, subsectors like the arts, environmental conservation and human services carry their own particular blind spots, which can shape board behavior, for better or worse. Understanding where these pitfalls are, and how to navigate them, is critical as chairs and organizational leadership recruit and manage members with varying nonprofit experience. Just as important is what these boards can learn from each other in the way they tackle issues in their sector. 

1.     Fundraising Strategy

Fundraising strategy is central to every nonprofit, but the gradual squeezing of government funds can hit human service nonprofits especially hard. As these boards set their funding plans, conventional thinkers may look to diversified funding models, but according to the Bridgespan Group, “Nonprofits attempting to be jacks of all sources fall behind those determined to be masters of one.” Instead of trying to do it all, Bridgespan recommends human services nonprofits focus and refine their fundraising efforts to target specific sources—a lesson that all nonprofits can benefit from. 

2.     Board Diversity

High-level positions in many industries suffer from a lack of diversity, and according to a recent report on environmental nonprofits, these organizations are no different, with leadership that’s overwhelmingly white and male. This doesn’t just hurt the quality of dialogue on nonprofit boards—it also influences how often organizations partner with ethnic minority and low-income groups, which, in turn, can affect the efficacy of outreach initiatives. As org leaders mine their networks to fill board seats, they should place priority on varied backgrounds and levels of experience in order to boost productivity.

“Org leaders should seek varied backgrounds and levels of experience for their board in order to boost productivity.”

3.     Gulf Between Boards and Beneficiaries

Nonprofit boards often struggle to bridge the gap between wealthy trustees and the giving public. This problem can be further exacerbated on arts boards. “How do you reconcile your mandate to be accessible with the fact that you are charging over $100 per ticket for this show?” Diana Ragsdale asks on the Arts Journal Blog. The solution might be increased oversight, at which many boards might balk, or increased self-monitoring of the boards themselves. Whatever the solution, nonprofit boards in every sector must be keenly aware of the community in which they operate; otherwise they’re just setting themselves up for failure.

4. Mission Messaging

The way in which boards package their mission during fundraising can differ greatly from sector to sector. For instance, the subjectivity of art appreciation changes the message for arts nonprofits. “For a social services board,” says behavioral economics expert and dual-board-member Gary Belsky, “who’s going to say, ‘No, I don’t want people drinking clean water?’” By contrast, Belsky notes, “When you ask someone to support an arts organization, in some ways, you’re asking them to support your taste in art.” The solution? Reframing messaging to appeal to civic duty, like environmental and human services boards do. By emphasizing the societal benefit of a thriving art scene, rather than the merits of a specific production, these boards can circumvent the question of taste and broaden the scope of their impact.

“When you ask someone to support an arts organization, in some ways, you’re asking them to support your taste in art.” 

5.     Corporate Partnerships

The last point here is less a pitfall and more just a valuable lesson in strategy from the arts sector. When it comes to courting C-suite members and corporate donations, Elizabeth George, senior consultant for The Rome Group, says arts boards may have hit upon a winning strategy. “Corporations who think that their client base may be attending these arts productions will donate to those productions,” George explains. “High-level corporate donors will support the arts because that’s where they see their client base to be.” Just like arts organizations target corporate partners with customer bases that align with potential ticket buyers, nonprofits in other sectors should seek out corporate partners eager to appeal to their consumers.
The takeaway
While every nonprofit has different priorities, the lessons above can be applied to board recruitment across every cause. Whether you’re an organizational leader or chair, as you build your board, you should remember to:

  1. Find the fundraising strategies that work for you and stick with it. 
  2. Always seek diverse opinions for your board and consistently assess your board against this metric.
  3. Ensure your activities and fundraisers align with your mission and beneficiaries.
  4. Keep your message frame appropriate.
  5. Get creative when considering corporate donation incentives.

With these in mind, you’ll be able to build the best board for your nonprofit’s needs. 


Haylin Belay is a freelance writer and blogger based in New York City. She is a frequent contributor to the RelSci blog.

RelSci is a technology solutions company that helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers.

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