October 1, 2008

Tapping Into the Nonprofit Board’s Talent

Nonprofits benefit greatly from investing the time to develop sound business plans. The business planning process helps an organization explore the many facets that define and influence the impact it intends to have, and encourages thoughtful consideration of how to measure progress and allocate resources to achieve its goals. It is within this important process that board members can offer valuable insight, often providing crucial objectivity, and diverse skills that can inform the process. Furthermore, board members involved in the business planning process are better-informed when making decisions during plan implementation. This article, which, originally appeared in BoardSource, shares how boards can become assets to the organizations they serve, and suggests ways they can add value during the three stages of the planning process: strategic thinking, strategic decisions, and implementation preparation.

By: Jeri Eckhart Queenan

(This article originally appeared in BoardSource.)


If your organization is not including board members in the business or strategic planning process, it’s missing out on their valuable perspectives, expertise, and support. Here’s a look at how and why they should be involved from the get-go.

There’s no question that nonprofit organizations benefit from investing the time to develop sound business plans. Being able to articulate—explicitly— the difference the organization intends to make and how it intends to hold itself accountable for progress helps leaders decide how best to allocate resources, establish sound performance—metrics, and communicate effectively with funders.

But even organizations that are committed to engaging deeply in business planning—or what many nonprofit organizations call strategic planning—may be missing out on a great source of untapped value: their boards.

  • Board members, being removed from daily operations, can bring objectivity to the business planning table. Without their view, the leadership team’s blind spots can become strategic blind spots—visible only when the strategy implementation effort runs into problems.
  • As a group, board members hopefully have a diverse set of skills and expertise that can inform the planning process and provide important follow-through as planning transitions to practice. For example, if the organization is going to expand its operations, a board member with knowledge of change management can be a useful sounding board.
  • After board members approve the business plan, they will continue to make decisions that are critical to implementation—for example, approving the budget. The further upstream in the process they are involved, the more likely they will be to make subsequent decisions that are consistent with the plan’s underlying logic.

In Bridgespan’s consulting work, we’ve seen boards hone their practices to become true assets to the organizations they govern and serve. Their experiences suggest several ways in which boards can add value in three stages of business planning: strategic thinking, strategic decisions, and implementation preparation.

Strategic Thinking: How can the Board Help Set a Clear Strategy?

At the outset, board members can help their organization by virtue of their vantage point. Distanced from day-to-day operations, they are often positioned to consider objectively the organization’s history and its current situation (financial health, capabilities, performance) against the context in which it operates (e.g. other nonprofits offering similar services and the funding landscape). Armed with this perspective, they can encourage chief executives and other senior staff to address tough questions about where they would like to see the organization five years out. What impact does this organization intend to have? How does it intend to reach its goals?

The national board of Nebraska-based Boys Town provides a good example. Boys Town youth care and health care programs reach across the United States, Canada, and the U.S. Territories providing services to 1.4 million children and families annually. Affiliate sites and two hospitals provide direct care in more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia. In 2007, when the organization began developing a five-year strategic plan, the board formed a Strategic Planning Task Force to inform and support the process. It consisted of eight board members and eight staff members.

One of the first things the task force did was to help Boys Town’s leaders outline the major questions to be addressed in the planning process. The task force also helped review proposals from consulting firms bidding to facilitate the process and participated in drafting the engagement letter to ensure that the key strategic questions were articulated and well-understood before the process got underway.

There’s an added benefit of engaging board members early: Those who participate in making “fork-in-the-road” decisions concerning strategic direction are more likely to understand and enthusiastically support the final plan.

Strategic Decision-Making: How Can the Board Inform the Decisions?

Board members can add value at this stage by helping the organization’s senior staff understand the risks and trade-offs associated with choices and by ensuring that all options are assessed against the organization’s current situation, managerial bench-strength, and fundraising capabilities.

Communities In Schools (CIS) is a national network that connects public schools with community resources to help young people learn, stay in school, and prepare for life.

A board subcommittee of six individuals was deeply engaged in CIS’s business planning process. These committee members differed significantly in their background and tenure on the board, which helped ensure that the many perspectives represented on the board were included in the planning effort. The committee’s diversity also improved the quality of the process, as members drew on their backgrounds to offer input and raise issues that otherwise might not have been considered. The planning effort took seven months, during which the committee met three times and held five conference calls with other members of the planning team, which included CIS national senior leaders, staff, selected local directors, and consultants. Committee members also engaged in multiple individual exchanges with other members of the planning team.

The Boys Town task force was briefed by Boys Town senior leaders every six weeks or so throughout that organization’s six-month planning process. During these briefings, the task force would act as a sounding board, pushing the organization’s leadership to think through the potential opportunities and consequences of the decisions they were making. This task force facilitated two updates to the full board and took responsibility for ensuring that the full board understood the implications of the final plan for the organization and for the board.

Implementation Preparation: What Can the Board Do To Ensure Success?

Two questions can help board members frame their thinking at this stage of the process. The first is: What do we need to do in order to help implement this plan? For example, if the organization is going to expand nationwide from a local base, how can the board help? Does the board need to shift from one comprised of local leaders to one that includes national leaders? If the plan calls for a capital fundraising campaign, can board members tap their networks and introduce development staff to potential funders? Do board members have unique skills that could advance strategic imperatives, for example in real estate, contract negotiation, advertising, or advocacy?

The second question is: How should the board hold the organization accountable for success? What, for example, are the right performance measures for capturing program, organizational, and financial progress at the right level of detail? Do these outcomes and metrics focus the board’s attention on the most important strategic initiatives in the business plan? How does this tracking system get translated into board agendas that focus the board’s time on what matters most?

Getting Started

Nonprofit boards are ultimately responsible for their organization’s mission; they also have fiduciary responsibility. It makes good sense, then, that the members engage in the business planning process. If the board has not previously done so, it can begin by asking the board chair and the organization’s senior leadership to explore the possibilities.

Of course, just as with any major undertaking, the chief executive and the board need to ask if this is the right time for the organization to engage in business planning. Preparatory work may be necessary: making sure that board members have an in-depth understanding of the organization, ensuring that staff and board have adequate time to devote to this work, and strengthening the constructive partnership of the board and chief executive to ensure the right balance between board and staff initiative and involvement in planning. Some board members do not have the time for in-depth involvement; the question then becomes how to tap their expertise and insight at the right points in the process as efficiently as possible.

If the board is already participating, it can be useful to look for ways in which the members’ expertise can add additional value. Even small steps along these lines can lead to significant gains for the organization.

Sidebar: Questions and Answers
All business plans have the same purpose: to build a compelling case for an organization by addressing a core set of questions. As with any good argument, the best business plans make their case step-by-step, explaining the why and where before getting to the details of when and how. The goal is to capture the “answers” that your organization agreed upon in the planning process.

While each organization approaches business planning with its own particular set of questions and priorities, Bridgespan has found the process typically includes four distinct components:
  • Strategic clarity: What impact does the organization wish to have over a specific period of time and how will its work lead to that impact?
  • Strategic priorities: What specific actions and activities must take place to achieve the intended impact?
  • Resource implications: What resources — financial, human, and organizational — are needed to pursue the priorities? How will they be secured?
  • Performance measures: What are the quantitative and qualitative milestones that will make it possible to measure progress toward the intended impact?
The following questions help surface strategic priorities:
  • How well does each of our current programs or activities align with our mission and intended impact?
  • What are our costs for operating each program and per outcome or positive result?
  • Do all of our activities complement our core capabilities and expertise or are we stretched too thin?
  • How do we compare to our peers?
  • Are there services we should modify or add to maximize impact?
To help identify required resources, consider asking:
  • Do we have the right organizational structure in place to implement the plan?
  • Does our existing staff have the necessary skills and expertise?
  • What roles, if any, do we need to create?
  • How much staff and client growth can our current office and program space accommodate?
  • What new or improved systems do we need (e.g. IT, financial)?
  • Can we manage the budget required by the human resource and infrastructure investments?
  • Can we raise the money we need?

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