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Five Challenges Facing Nonprofit Boards

Adapted from smorgasBoard

The current tough economy poses unique challenges for nonprofit boards. We recently convened Breakfast on the BoardWalk with a group of nonprofit board leaders, all of whom had attended the renowned Harvard Business School course entitled "Governing for Nonprofit Excellence." To this stellar group, we posed the question: "What are the top challenges facing nonprofit boards you serve on?" All acknowledged the reality that nonprofits today are living close to the line financially. Here is our summary of the main challenges their boards face:

  1. Avoiding the tactics trap. In times of crisis, board members may be tempted to forsake their strategic role and delve into the minutia. By focusing too much on tactics, however, a board risks losing its role as big-picture adviser, while dampening staff initiative and morale at the very time they're needed most.
  2. Killing sacred cows. Boards are the ultimate keepers of the mission. This is a time to focus on the essence of what a nonprofit does best. It's time to encourage staff to jettison, move, or partner programs that fall outside the sweet spot of the nonprofit's mission, core skills, and core value proposition.
  3. Balancing poverty and potential. With a zero-fat budget and mounting debt, nonprofits may be tempted to adopt a bunker mentality that can sap an organization's creativity. Boards must help nonprofit managers keep an eye on innovation and the future—finding avenues to serve the mission in differentiating new ways—while keeping a tight rein on expenses.
  4. Re-fueling board energy, staff energy, and brand energy. It's more important than ever for a nonprofit to tell its stories of success in ways that are both consistent and compelling. Board and staff energy fuel the excitement and participation levels of everyone involved. Take time to celebrate the difference you are making.
  5. Planning for leadership continuity. Few nonprofits can afford to have an in-house successor to the CEO, but all can have plans in place that anticipate a leadership interruption, and all can increase staff bench strength at every level. Similarly, boards need to be adding strength and depth to their own circle to meet current challenges and future opportunities.

Clearly, boards' roles are more complex and critical than ever.

Kathy Bremer, BoardWalk Consulting
© 2009, BoardWalk Consulting

Kathy Bremer is the managing director of BoardWalk Consulting, a firm dedicated to "building strong foundations for nonprofits"® through executive search, board enrichment, and strategic facilitation. She can be reached at (404) 262-7392 or

Topics: Board Development