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Structuring Your Board of Directors and Qualities of Effective Board Members


Structuring Your Board of Directors

(Adapted from Starting a Nonprofit at Your Church by Joy Skjegstad, The Alban Institute, 2002. Obtain this item. Note: You will be leaving the FASTEN Web site.)

Establishing a nonprofit board of directors is essentially a two-step process: first, choose the board’s structure, and second, recruit board members. Within those two steps, however, are multiple possibilities. The trick is to select the best options for your organization’s needs.

Step One: The Structure

Model 1: The Church Board Also Serves as the Nonprofit’s Board

Pros of This Model

Cons of This Model

Strong connection to the church and its leadership

Less control over who serves on the board

Can begin work with the nonprofit quickly, do not have to wait to form a board

Church and nonprofit may need different kinds of board members due to:
-different purposes of organization
-different pace of work
-different skills needed
-different networks needed

May be a good way to start: build trust with the nonprofit first, form separate board later

Church board could have little time to devote to the nonprofit, if there is pressing church business

For churches with little organizational experience outside of the church itself, this model is a simple, straightforward way to give the nonprofit instant credibility. Nonprofits directed by a church board have the advantage of a ready-made relationship with the church, and already earned trusts between the board members. Such nonprofits are able to move into their areas of service quickly, without having to wait through the process of forming a board, learn the strengths and weaknesses of the board members, or garner support from the founding church.

However, church board members whose skills perfectly complement the needs of the church may not match so well with the needs of the nonprofit. During times of urgent church business, the dual-acting board may be torn in its loyalties, having to choose between concentrating on church affairs and providing the leadership the nonprofit requires. Inevitably, the nonprofit may be counted the lesser priority, and its capacity for serving the community will suffer.

Model 2: A Completely Separate Board for the Nonprofit

Pros of This Model

Cons of This Model

Creates the opportunity for the church and nonprofit to be in alignment with each other

Can be a challenge to bring together people from inside and outside the church on the board:
-differences in values
-differences in theology
-differences in how they view the community
-differences in work culture/pace of work

Creates natural communication channels between church and nonprofit

A more complicated structure to administrate:
-more reporting requirements
-recruiting board members is more complicated

Can intentionally select nonprofit board members with the right mix of:
-community connection
-networks and partners
-fundraising contacts


Congregation still feels a sense of ownership for the ministries of the nonprofit


In this model, the nonprofit is free to engage board members that best suit the nonprofit’s needs and methods. The disadvantage of this model is that without a direct connection to the church, the nonprofit may struggle to get needed financial and volunteer support from church members. Eventually, the church and nonprofit may sever all ties.

Model 3: A Separate Board for the Nonprofit That Has Accountability to the Church

Pros of This Model

Cons of This Model

Complete freedom to recruit the board members that the nonprofit needs

Harder to stay connected to the church's mission and its leadership

Freedom for the nonprofit to establish its own culture and work at its own pace

Could lead to disunity/split between the church and nonprofit

The third model combines the best aspects of the first two models, creating a structure in which the nonprofit board is distinct in membership from the church board, but the nonprofit board has accountability to the church. The “separate but accountable” nonprofit board can select the best board members for the nonprofit’s needs, without having to settle for a ready-made, ill-fitting church board. The board has the advantage of partnership with the founding church, so that the church congregation feels involved in and somewhat responsible for the nonprofit ministries. The challenges for this model involve the extra effort required to report the nonprofit’s activities and goals to the church, and the extra difficulties of compiling board members of diverse backgrounds and faiths from the church and community.

Step 2: Recruit Board Members

An effective nonprofit board of directors requires effective board members. When setting up a board of directors for your nonprofit organization, equip your board with individuals who demonstrate the following qualities:

  • Integrity.  Effective board members are committed to an "above-board" organization that complies with all laws on all governmental levels.

  • Strategy. Board members prepare and adhere to a sound strategic plan that provides measurable goals and ensures ongoing financial resources to support the organization's staffing and programs.

  • Service. Board members faithfully attend board meetings and special organizational events. They talk with staff members and clients, and sound out problems that need fixing or issues that must be addressed.

  • Commitment. Board members demonstrate their faith in the organization through personal financial contributions.

  • Preparation. Board members do their homework; they come to meetings informed and ready to discuss concerns, questions and disagreements about organizational methods and goals.

  • Enthusiasm. Board members are eager to learn, willing to be team players, and energetic in their service.

  • Scrutiny. Board members audit their records regularly and in detail.

  • Knowledge. Board members know the organization's mission and purpose, and understand how its programs and services support the organization's strategic plan.

  • Diplomacy. Board members represent the best of the organization, and mediate appropriately between the organization and the community it serves.

  • Focus. Board members direct the organization toward its goals without getting tied down in details or sidetracked by non-crucial issues.

  • Diversity. An effective board includes and involves members from various fields of expertise, with applicable degrees of organizational experience, to ensure that the organization is well balanced in its strengths.

  • Accountability. Each board member has a unique function on the board. Board members accept responsibility for their functions and for their actions.

  • Dependence. Board members acknowledge the value of the organization's staff and the need for committed, consistent volunteers.

Related Articles
Qualities of Effective Board Members

Maintaining a Positive Relationship Between Your Nonprofit and Your Church

Four Quick Tips for a Positive Church-Nonprofit Relationship

Seven Key Questions for a Good Church-Nonprofit Relationship

Related Books
Starting a Nonprofit at Your Church

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