The Essential Board Plan

By Jay W. Vogt and Judy A. Ozbun

These four simple steps will get your board working well on the right work.

You may be like many of our clients – both nonprofit board members and executive directors alike – who tell us: “We’re not as focused as a board on the right things—namely governance—as we should be,” and “We’re not as productive as we could be."

Perhaps your chorus has little or no staff, and your board functions as what we call “a working board,” fulfilling management or operational responsibilities. On many such boards, members primarily wear their “unpaid staff volunteer” hat, which can accomplish wonderful things for the organization. That focus may be essential to get your organization up and running. What’s not so wonderful is when that focus displaces time and energy for wearing the “board governance” hat and taking care of the traditional and fiduciary governance responsibilities of boards. If your board isn’t doing these things, they aren’t getting done. And that puts your whole organization at risk. How can we change this—quickly, easily, and reliably over time?

We’ve found consistently that having the following four conversations and accomplishing four related tasks help boards catch up to where they need to be and catapult them forward to where they want to be:

1. Define board roles.
2. Assess board performance.
3. Set board goals.
4. Plan next steps.

Board roles drive the conversation. The board must agree on its governance roles and responsibilities at the highest level. It can then assess itself on how well it is doing in fulfilling those roles. Having considered what is working, and what can be improved, in each of those areas, goals for the board—say for the next year—emerge naturally. Build on what is working. Amend what needs improvement. The fourth and final conversation about next steps—how best to achieve board goals—leads naturally to setting up committees as efficient structures for ensuring that work gets done.

Moving from board roles to board goals aligns the board around its proper work, and clarifies the steps necessary to accomplish that work. The results can then be captured in a template we call the Essential Board Plan—an annual work plan for the board that expresses the board’s shared aspirations, and guides the board chair in his or her leadership of the board. These conversations, held quickly and efficiently each year, guarantee that the board focuses on the right things, and makes steady progress toward its objectives. Board members can still function as unpaid staff volunteers, but after first making sure to complete their governance work.

Let’s the review the four tasks—the four conversations—in sequence, along with the Essential Board Plan that they produce.

1. Define Board Roles.

Ask any board what the roles of a board are and, in our experience, they will generally give you roughly similar answers. Most will say that boards:

1. Set mission, strategic goals, and policy.
2. Set and approve budgets.
3. Raise funds and ensure adequate resources.
4. Hire, support, and fire the executive director.
5. Represent the organization to the public, and the public to the organization.
6. Develop themselves through recruitment, orientation, and training.

These governance roles are widely understood, or at least widely known intuitively. We find that they are part of the history and experience base, albeit sometimes in an unstated way, shared by many wonderful volunteers in our great nonprofit sector.

To prime the pump for this conversation, we typically share with boards, in advance of our work together, some of the many lists of board governance roles detailed in articles (such as “Becoming a More Effective Board” at www.bridgespan.org) and in books (such as The Nonprofit Organization by Thomas Wolfe). We think of these lists as conveying the “conventional wisdom” about boards. You don’t have to follow this wisdom, but if you don’t, you should at least know that you aren’t, and why.

The roles you’ll find on these lists don’t always overlap perfectly with each other, but when you read a few, the basic themes become clear. We like to see boards post—on sticky notes of one color on a wall—the various roles that board members suggest, along with the suggested roles from lists coming from one or two additional expert sources, and then sort them by role category. It’s quick, visual, and helps the overall themes pop out clearly.

If any negotiating needs to happen about why a board exists, this is when it takes place. Sometimes a board adds a role at this point that uniquely expresses who the group is. It might not be present on any of the lists of so-called “conventional wisdom,” but is still right for this board. For example, one prominent social justice organization added the role that board members set the standard of moral courage exemplified by the organization’s work. In other words, when it comes time to march for justice, board members must be in the lead. You won’t find this role on many lists, but it fit this board perfectly.

Sometimes board members suggest roles for their board in programs, operations, and other areas best left to management, staff or other volunteers. You won’t find these roles cited in the “conventional wisdom,” and it is important to understand why. Too much focus on day-to-day operations is a common reason that boards lose proper governance focus. Volunteers generally join an organization’s board because they have been inspired by its mission, and bring a passion for the organization’s programs. They may not understand or enjoy their governance roles as much (think: evaluating the executive, or asking for money). This loss of governance focus is easy to understand, but no less problematic.

Board members must grasp that a focus on programs is like eating dessert, something you do last, should you have room. Focus on governance means eating your vegetables first, to keep you healthy. Some boards – recognizing the need to transition to a governance board—even form a separate operations committee to focus on programs so that this work can be kept separate from the “big picture” focus of the board.

2. Assess Board Performance.

How does the board leverage its newfound clarity about its roles? The answer is self-assessment of its performance, in a way that leads to board goals. After a board has brainstormed, refined, and selected a half-dozen or so essential board governance roles, it’s easy to ask: “So how are we doing in each of these areas?” Each of the board’s clearly defined governance roles now frame their respective areas of board performance review. If it’s not a governance role, it’s not up for review. If it is a governance role, it’s up for review, even if we’ve never cared about it before.

We skip the fancy board assessments, typically done by survey with a list of seemingly hundreds of items, and just ask the board two simple questions:
1. “What’s working in this area?”
2. “What could work even better?”
If you don’t have much time, the board can be divided into multiple small groups to generate answers for multiple roles, simultaneously. If you have more time, the board can work through these questions for each area, together. We ask these small groups to create two lists for their role area: one under a large plus sign (“What’s working in this area?”), and the other under a large triangle, or delta, the Greek symbol for change (“What could work even better?”).

3. Set Board Goals.

This simple yet powerful assessment process generates the material for setting board goals, naturally and organically. The answers to the first question reveal your baseline board goals (those things to continue), and the answers to the second reveal your improvement goals (those things to start, stop, or do differently).

One board appreciated that they supported their executive well, but admitted that they hadn’t given her an evaluation in over three years. One board noticed that they attracted good talent through their nomination process, but then failed to orient and train the newcomers. Another noted that board members regularly gave donations, but the board itself had never set a clear goal for participation and giving. So each board set goals for the coming year to maintain their existing governance strengths, and to extend them in some meaningful way.

What emerges from these three conversations is a set of board goals, based on self-assessment, and driven by board roles. Every board member participates in their creation, and owns them in some way. Since these board goals are driven by board roles, progress on them means, by definition, doing the right things, and not doing the wrong things.

4. Plan Next Steps.

Who makes it happen? Look again at the six roles that most boards typically mention and you’ll notice that each one lends itself to a committee.

1. Set mission, strategic goals, and policy. →Strategic Planning
2. Set and approve budgets. →Finance/Audit/Investment
3. Raise funds and ensure adequate resources. →Development
4. Hire, support, and fire the executive director. →Executive/Personnel
5. Represent the organization to the public, and the public to the organization. →External Relations/Marketing/Communications
6. Develop themselves through recruitment, orientation, and training. →Board Development/Governance/Nominating

At this point most boards see clearly which committees they need (any committees that help them fulfill their governance roles), and which they don’t (any that don’t help them fulfill their governance roles). With this insight, some board committees will typically be inaugurated, while others may be terminated at this point.

Some boards see that they need more committees than they have people power to populate. This naturally leads to the setting of priorities as to which committees are needed now, and which can be formed at a later date. Sometimes there are not enough board members to staff a full committee, but the relevant board goals still need attention. Board goals for such a role can perhaps be given attention by an individual champion for the cause. These insights—about current and future board needs—help drive an understanding of what types of talent the board should attract and retain. They also create motivation for the board to add other non-board members to committees. This best practice expands the labor pool and both attracts and provides for the screening of future board candidates. All these choices lead to an efficient board, focused on the right things.

The Essential Board Plan

The board now begins to see what its work plan for the coming year or so should be. The draft goals developed by the assessment conversation for a particular role can be delegated to the appropriate existing (or new) committee to be thoughtfully vetted, and then brought back to the full board for their review and approval. All can then be assembled into an Essential Board Plan for ready reference and monitoring. We’ve provided a free template for this purpose (see sidebar). The board chair now sees clearly what his or her job is—to coach committee chairs to accomplish their agreed goals, on behalf of the full board. Most board chairs are thrilled to have this clarity: a set of time-bound goals, based on commitments made by board members themselves, assigned to committees and chairs. Everyone’s goals and accountabilities are clear. Boards that implement these plans in a disciplined way can enjoy a deep sense of satisfaction and contribution.

We find you can hold a good part of this conversation in two hours—the length of most board meetings—with follow-up work delegated to committee chairs. In order to make this experience available to the largest possible number of nonprofits, we’ve created an online service in which we virtually facilitate your board through this entire two-hour set of conversations, preceded and followed by virtual coaching for your Chair and Executive Director (please see the side box).

The four conversations of the Essential Board Plan are great ones to have when a new Board Chair assumes office, or at the start of a new year. The Essential Board Plan maps out the new leader’s agenda for the next year, and ensures that your board will not only not be working on the wrong things, but working on the right things, and getting them done.

The Essential Board Plan Template

EssentialWorth’s Essential Board Plan template enables you to capture the results of your four conversations in a convenient form that will guide your board through a productive year. With it, you can link every critical board role to its corresponding board goals, and to the committee that ensures that those board goals are accomplished. Once approved by the board, you can consult this plan again and again, updating your status as you accomplish your goals.

Download the free Essential Board Plan at essentialworth.com/board.

Virtual Facilitation

EssentialWorth also offers a facilitated two-hour virtual board workshop option for organizations interested in more guidance through the Essential Board Plan process. Consultants guide board chairs and executive directors through simple pre-work to get ready, facilitate your full board through a two-hour interactive workshop, and guide board chairs and executive directors through simple post-work to bring your plan to closure. To learn more about this service, contact the EssentialWorth team at jay@essentialworth.com or judy@essentialworth.com.


EssentialWorth (www.essentialworth.com) is a virtual consultancy whose mission is to empower nonprofits to achieve their missions through online services that save time and money. Founders and master consultants, Jay W. Vogt and Judy A. Ozbun, collectively bring more than 50 years of broad organizational expertise—across sectors and multiple industries—to the creation of EssentialWorth products and services.

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