Boards of Directors

About board members and their service.

Advisory Volunteers, Susan J. Ellis, Appeared as an "On Volunteers" column in The NonProfit Times
Avoiding the Pitfalls [in Recruiting Board Members], Carol E. Weisman, p. 18-20, F.E. Robbins & Sons, 1998
Be Ambassadors to the Community, Jan Masaoka, All Hands on Board: The Board of Directors in an All-Volunteer Organization, pp. 15-16, National Center for Nonprofit Boards and the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, 1999
Board Chair Responsible?, Don Kramer, Nonprofit Issues
Board Service Burn-Out Quiz and Recovery Plan, Carol Weisman, MSW, CSP Veteran of 32 boards, president of 7, 2011
Board Service by Young People, Jenny Sazama and Karen S. Young, pp.19-20, Youth on Board, 2001
The Board and Staff Need an Alliance, The NonProfit Times, The NonProfit Times, 2017

10 Questions to Consider

Boards of Directors: Governing at a Distance?, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2007
CEO as Board Chair: The Nonprofit Ethicist Just Doesn’t Like It, NPO Quarterly, 2015

Precise ethical reasoning as to why an executive director should not be a member of a nonprofit board of directors

Day 6: Find Your Successor, Carol E. Weisman, pp. 33-4, F.E. Robbins & Sons, 1998
Divining a Skills Set, George Weiner, The NonProfit Times, 2008

A Volunteer Management Perspective on Boards of Directors

Problem Boards or Board Problems?, William P. Ryan, Richard R. Chait, and Barbara E. Taylor, Nonprofit Quarterly, 2003 - republished 2017

Excellent examination of a nonprofit board's role

Self-Led Volunteer Groups, Susan J. Ellis, pp. 166-8, F. E. Robbins & Sons Press., 1998
Sneaky and Insightful Boardroom Questions, Carol Weisman, Board Builders e-zine, News from the Road, 2010
The Treasure Trove of Knowledge Philanthropists, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2013
Why The Board Should Consider Volunteer Issues, Susan J. Ellis, The Nonprofit Board's Role in Maximizing Volunteer Resources, pp. 2-3, National Center for Nonprofit Boards, 1999
Why Volunteer Involvement Deserves Attention from the Board of Directors, Betty Stallings with Susan J. Ellis, p. 173, Energize, Inc., 2010
Why Young People Should Be Decision Makers, Jenny Sazama and Karen S. Young, pp. 4-6, Youth on Board, 2001
Jan Masaoka, originally published by the National Center for Nonprofit Boards , 2012, pp. 19

Report from BoardSource  on its survey of more than 1700 board chairs and executives of nonprofit organizations sharing data and insights about their boards’ composition, practices, performance, and culture. Of special interest for its data on lack of diversity. See a review of the study published in Nonprofit Quarterly on 9/6/17.

, 2017, pp. 64

Developed by CNIB, this manual highlights best practices for partnering with leadership volunteers, particular board and committee members, senior advisors, and project leaders.  Accompanied by a Toolkit.

, 2017

A Guide for Charities and Foundations. Published by the Independent Sector on work done by The Panel on the Nonprofit Sector.

, 2007, pp. 32

A research study by the Alliance for Nonprofit Management's Governance Affinity Group  surveying 635 nonprofit board chairs across the United States. The study asked: How do individuals (volunteers, of course) prepare for their role as chair of a nonprofit board? and, what do board chairs perceive their leadership roles to be in relationship to the board, the community, and the CEO? The answers are quite revealing.

, 2016, pp. 30
Adler & Colvin (formerly Silk, Alder & Colvin)

The "resources" area of this law firm's Web site offers a number of excellent articles on legal issues for nonprofit boards of directors.

All about Boards of Directors

Comprehensive site compiled by Carter McNamara, with many articles and links on specific board-related topics.

Board Cafe

Archive of past issues of this monthly e-newsletter for board members from CompassPoint Nonprofit Services.


A site "revolutionizing the way nonprofit boards and new leaders find each other." Nonprofits can post their board member vacancies and individuals interested in board service can browse what might suit their interests.


Major American source for information about nonprofit boards of directors. Especially see their "Essential Questions" about board membership, the rest of theirQ&A topics, and their 107-page compilation (PDF),A Guide to the Literature on Governance: An Annotated Bibliography.

Career Volunteer

Career Volunteer is "here to make it easier for you to search and recruit trustees, skilled volunteers, potential mentors, and Board Members for your charity, NGO or social enterprise...By skilled volunteers we mean people who can provide pro bono assistance in specialist areas - marketing, finance, fundraising, strategy or people with technical abilities in other professions." Career Volunteer gives you access to fully funded expertise and Board-level skills from outside the sector, provided on a pro bono basis -- candidates are drawn from large corporates participating and funding the programme.  Also have an interesting blog, "Volunteers do it for free" at


Charity Village: Ethics

From CharityVillage (Canada), this archive of questions and answers to ethical questions focuses on sticky issues confronted by nonprofit boards.

Corestrategies on Nonprofits Blog

Written by four nonprofit consultants led by Terrie Temkin, this blog frequently offers volunteer-related posts.

Donor Dream Blog (Category: Volunteers)

Erik Anderson writes this blog about donor relations and one of his categories is volunteers -- specifically how to work with nonprofit boards of directors.  This link takes you to the compilation of posts archived under "volunteer," but you can also view posts on fundraising and other topics.


Part of Reach...Skilled Volunteers in the UK, this site helps both organizations and board members work more effectively.

Working with Committeesarea of University of Illinois Extension Web Site

This website containsfact sheets,role descriptions,worksheets, andadditional resourcesto assist volunteers and 4-H members in developing effective committees within their club -- but applicable elsewhere.

Youth on Board

Prepares youth to be leaders and decision makers in their communities and strengthens relationships between youth and adults. Particularly advocates involving young people on nonprofit boards of directors.

Print and e-Books in Our Store

Book cover

A how-to guide to fulfilling the role of board treasurer, written in simple, clear language for the non-accountant.

Defining Committees for Success
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

Committees are ubiquitous -- they pop up everywhere for anything. And most people grimace when they are asked to serve on one. Why? Because rarely is any time spent on defining both the work of the committee at that point in time and on the responsibilities of all the members. We jump right into the work at hand. I recommend spending a bit of time at the start of a committee's life, or annually for standing committees, to discuss and answer the following questions.


  • What is the purpose/mission of this committee?
  • What, specifically will the committee do this year?
  • What has it done in the past that will be continued or be dropped? Why?
  • What is the ideal size and make-up of the committee?
  • How often will it need to meet? Are there peak busy times?
  • Can any of the work be done online?
  • What resources are available to the committee?
  • How does the committee fit into the organization's overall structure?


  • Every member must understand and be committed to the decisions above.
  • What is the minimum attendance standard for meetings? Are substitute representatives acceptable? Will there be e-mail discussions in which to participate?
  • What is the minimum expectation for work to be done in between meetings?
  • What are reporting expectations -- and are reports due even if the member is not in attendance?
  • What skills and resources will members be expected to share with the committee?
  • What's the term of office and under what circumstances may a member be asked to resign?

Only then, for THE CHAIRPERSON:

  • The chair must understand and be committed to the decisions above.
  • What special responsibilities accrue to the chair, above and beyond regular committee membership?
  • What is the chair's role prior to each meeting?
  • At each meeting?
  • In-between meetings?
  • As a representative of the committee to the rest of the organization?

and for OTHER LEADERSHIP POSITIONS, follow the same sequence as above.

Finally, it is critical to also define the role of THE LIAISON PAID STAFF MEMBER, in terms of this specific committee (it will change for each committee and each employee, depending on the situation):

  • What is the interrelationship of the committee's work to the work of the employee?
  • How will the chair and employee work together?
  • Who sets the agenda for meetings?
  • What is the reporting procedure...two-way?
  • What is the employee's role during meetings? Is the paid staff person a voting member of the committee?
  • Who will do the clerical support work?
  • What organizational resources will be made available to the committee, through the employee?

Successful committees practice good volunteer management, since most often the people on such a team are there voluntarily -- whether paid or volunteer in other roles.





Effective Advisory Bodies
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

Just because you form an advisory council or committee does not necessarily mean anyone wants advice (or plans to act on it)! Too often such groups are created for public relations, demonstrating to others, whether in-house or to the public, that you seek the opinions of key people. In almost all cases, advisors are volunteers. Are we applying good volunteer management principles to working with them?

Here are some questions to guide you in making advisory bodies effective. As always, the more time you spend planning and structuring, the more likely the group will be really helpful to you - and much more satisfying to the volunteer members.

  • Do you want advice, decision-making, or hands-on help?

If you really need a group of people to do the work they will help you plan, don't mislabel the body as "advisory." That's bait-and-switch. Call it a steering committee or a coordinating team. On the other extreme, if what you truly want is expert advice or input from various perspectives to enable you to reach decisions that this group is not authorized to make, avoid the word "board." A board of directors votes and has authority. "Advisory board" is misleading and muddies the water as to the role of your true governing board and this non-decision-making advisory council.

  • What is the overall, long-term purpose of having this group?

Unfortunately, a lot of organizations have advisory bodies in order to have advisory bodies. In other words, getting opinions or ideas is nice, but secondary to that public relations factor already mentioned. Define what you really want the outcome to be - or else form an "honorary council" or "supporter circle" and don't pretend to anyone that these people are doing anything else other than letting them use your name as a supporter. The latter may be extremely valuable, but be honest. One of my pet peeves is being recruited to join an advisory panel, see my name on official documents, but never be asked to meet or express an opinion. That's mis-"using" volunteers who actually offered to help.

  • What are the specific short-term goals or tasks you need accomplished?

This will allow you to plan meeting agendas and get things done.

  • Will this group be self-governing and self-perpetuating or will you be the chair? In general, what role do you expect to have in relation to the group?
  • If the group is self-governing, who has the final say? Who controls the money?

There is not a right or a wrong way to answer these two questions, but you can see why they are important in terms of expectations and authority.

  • Which constituencies do you want represented -- and why? Which constituencies do you not want to invite -- and why not?
  • Who -- as individuals -- might be invited-and why? Who -- as individuals -- do you not want to invite-and why not?
  • How will you go about selecting and inviting your preferred list of members?

The three sets of questions above can also be answered in many different ways, but make sure you intentionally decide what you want to do and why. There are no external rules about who should serve on an advisory group, but there may be very important issues that you want to deal with in developing a strategy for your situation.

  • What is the position description of a member? Term of office? Will you want individual members to be specific advisors apart from their role in the group?

Sometimes we make the mistake of forming a great group of diverse people - recruited because they represent so many varied perspectives and areas of expertise - and then put them into a room to reach consensus! Why? As already noted, they do not have to make decisions or vote. So why not stop asking for a group reaction and concentrate instead on questions such as: What are all the pros and cons of this idea you can think of? What might be the best outcome of this action and the worst? When you define each member's role on the advisory body, include a request to be given, say, three hours a year of private time with him or her, apart from group meetings. That allows you to pick their brain on specific subjects which they know the most about.

  • Where and when will you meet, and how often? Why?
  • Will all discussions be in group meetings? Will you use electronic communication, and how?
  • Who initiates agenda items?
  • What action do you expect? What kinds of minutes/reports--sent to whom?

Again, no right or wrong answers, but these are valid questions. Finally:

  • Are you ready for a permanent group or should you begin with a time-limited task force?

You can always convene a group of advisors to help you with a very specific project, for a limited time (even planning for a permanent advisory body). In fact, you'll get more willing volunteers if you need their input for six months rather than "forever."

Get Governance Volunteers to Interact
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

It's the time of year when organizations run conferences, special events, and volunteer recognition functions. Such gatherings are great opportunities to educate board volunteers about what other volunteers/members are doing, connect the board directly with a range of people who have opinions about the organization, and make the board visible to other stakeholders.

The main goal is for the board to simply mingle, talk and listen. Accomplishing this, however, takes planning. Here are some suggestions:

  • Don't keep the board together as a group at any event. Instead, scatter them to seats at different banquet tables, have each attend different concurrent workshops, and even sit randomly throughout the hall at a plenary session. Then, encourage informal conversation, but with a purpose: Agree on one to three questions that every board member will ask participants during the course of the event, so that afterwards you can share frequent responses.
  • Make sure board volunteers are identifiable by special nametags, color codes, or ribbons. Give the average member a fighting chance to recognize and talk with them.
  • Limit private meetings to conduct board business during events as which other attendees may perceive such absence from the room as conveniently avoiding interaction with members. Even if this is a false assumption in terms of motive, board members who are kept in private meetings simply cannot be talking to members at the same time. Hold board meetings before or after, but allow board members the freedom to actually participate in the event itself.
  • Depending on the personalities of board volunteers and the culture of your organization, add some fun into the proceedings. Rotate officers at the podium for introductions or moderating panels, but have them introduce themselves with a short anecdote about their most memorable organization moment, why they ran for the board, or what mistakes they made in the past. Or have them hand out gag gifts as special recognition to selected members. Or dress them in costumes. Whatever works in your situation.

It's the board chair who establishes board culture and therefore has the responsibility of assuring that the sort of staying-connected activities described here become a natural expectation of the role of any board member. The chair models behavior, of course. Does the chair stand on ceremony, keeping staff and volunteers distant and rarely mingling informally? Most leaders do not intentionally act regal. At a minimum, you can suggest more effective ways to interact at an event focused on volunteers for the purpose of celebrating the contribution of time and expertise. Maybe your executive can then keep the momentum going!

Ten Ways to Transform Comittees
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

Committee meetings are a fact of organizational life, yet often waste members' time and patience. Here are 10 ideas that apply a volunteer management perspective to making such teams work.

#1: Make sure you really need a committee.
If the work required only needs two or three efficient people, don't form a "committee." Designate a dynamic duo or terrific trio to work out the tasks themselves - no chairperson needed, either. If you do need a larger work group, consider dropping the label "committee" in favor of terms such as "task force" or "action team." It's amazing how changing the name can change attitudes.

#2: It's better to live with a vacancy for a while than to put the wrong volunteer into a key position.
Screen candidates to assure that your committee has the skills it needs. Don't negotiate away critical responsibilities in order to recruit someone (especially such things as attendance at meetings) or you will get less participation than you need.

#3: Interrelationships are critical to success (or failure) of volunteer projects.
Make sure committee members get to know one another and what each brings to the table. Use tools like meeting minutes that record who agreed to do what, by when, to keep everyone informed about work in progress. Clarify what the role of any paid staff liaison might be in relation to the volunteer committee. Equal partner? Clerical support? Who has veto power?

#4: Concentrate on good followership as well as on good leadership.
Define in writing what the goals of each committee are and write a position description for all committee members. After you've defined what each member will do, then develop the description for the chairperson or other officers. Train everyone to initiate discussion or action and not wait for all ideas to come from the chair.

#5: Burnout of valued volunteers is the inevitable result of going back again and again to the same people.
Develop and enforce a rotation policy for committee membership and leadership. Take some risks in recruiting members who may be new and untried. Allow experienced people to consult with a committee in short-term, specific ways without having to serve on the committee and attend every meeting.

#6: Be sure you are truly welcoming to newcomers.
Are new committee members brought on board in a friendly and helpful way? Consciously orient newcomers, both with a solid set of historical materials and with an explanation of how the committee works internally.

#7: Applaud steps on the way to goals.
Don't hold recognition only for the end of a project. Thank people for their efforts as they move through the process. Be aware of low points in enthusiasm and do things that regenerate interest. Even something as simple as applause for an accomplishment can lift spirits.

#8: Support volunteers who are doing good work.
Mutually agree upon expectations and methods of reporting at the very start - and don't allow absence from a meeting to mean a member doesn't have to report. Deal with poor performance as it reveals itself rather than waiting until it has become a problem pattern of behavior. Which is a key way to make every volunteer who is doing the work right feel supported and recognized.

#9: Make the most of your written communication, especially e-mail.
Give committee members a fighting chance to read - and act on - your mailings: highlight, use boxes, humor, color. Send shorter messages more often and use e-mail subject bars to assist volunteers in separating FYI messages from items that need a quick response.

#10: Document procedures so that they can be passed on to successors.
In addition to committee minutes, it is equally important to keep track of policies made or changed, procedures implemented, sample forms developed, and other tools that will be useful to those who serve in later years. Schedule a transition meeting between incoming and outgoing chairs.

If your organization has many committees, consider holding a chairperson's institute and training everyone to implement tips such as these. You can foster a consistent approach to group work that helps everyone to get more done and treat one another better while doing it.