50 Shades of Good Governance

Amazingly, the nonprofit governance system recommends—or should I say, demands—that a relatively small, diverse group of disinterested individuals be recruited to sit at the same table and be charged with making good governance decisions on behalf of a nonprofit corporation. Most of these individuals (in Wisconsin, Boards range in size from the legal minimum of 3 to a high of 108) are asked to tackle this responsibility without prior experience, training, or even an orientation to their job (only about half of the Boards offer regular orientation). Yet, when these individuals act in unison, the Board can be a very powerful leader.


Although Boards may come in 50 shades ranging from a hindrance to an enormous resource, it is not unusual for an executive director to ask—as one recently did of Kim Klein, founder of Grassroots Fundraising—“Is the Board structure essentially useless? Shouldn’t it be dissolved?”

Certainly, there are times when an executive poses this question, though they may not dare say it out loud. Rightfully so, Ms. Klein restated the question as “How can the Board be most effective?”

An effective and efficient Board, fulfilling its governance responsibilities, that is passionate about an organization’s mission and supportive of its staff, shouldn’t just be an executive’s dream. Rather, a vast majority of this country’s more than 1 million nonprofit Boards should act prudently and resourcefully on behalf of an organization.


1998 was a very important year for the partners at the Fund. It was the year that new funding partners were encouraged to join the three founders, and a sister fund was established in Waukesha. It was also the year that the second part of the Fund’s mission—“increases the resources for nonprofit management in the greater Milwaukee area.”—came to life.

This was the year that the Board Orientation And Resource Development Initiative was launched. From a series of focus groups, we understood what Board Directors wanted to learn, needed to know, and were willing to attend. Armed with this information, a multi-faceted initiative was designed, implemented, and evaluated. The first depiction of our initiative slowly evolved over the next 13 years under the Fund’s direction and with its support, until it was spun-off as an independent nonprofit in June 2011.


Both Board effectiveness and individual Director satisfaction can be correlated to solid governance practices, which was documented in the Fund’s 2003 third-party evaluation. The evaluators found that engagement and involvement of the Board was the critical factor in successful management improvement projects. The 2004 Milwaukee Governance Index corroborated this finding with 94% of local executive respondents noting that there is a direct correlation between Board effectiveness and overall organizational performance. In 2010, BoardSource validated the expectation that Boards that are well informed about their roles and responsibilities are more engaged, more effective, and have a more positive impact on the organization. In 2012, BoardSource found that 62% of Boards felt the Board was “well informed” or “very well informed” of its responsibilities.


Although we may be moving in the right direction, Milwaukee funders often lament if only the Boards of their grantees had more training, the organizations would be more prosperous. Maybe. Probably so. But, definitely not guaranteed.

Training alone is not a panacea. A workshop is a great technique to bring everyone up to the same informational level, but typically applying the information is more difficult than it may seem. Across the country, training is the standard tool for Board development, be it in the form of a workshop, a webinar, a podcast, or a conference.


However, combine training with consultation, add a service that assists with recruitment, and make available online tools and resources, a Board can move forward in a more efficient and expeditious manner. The core lesson learned it that there is no single approach that will assist Boards in becoming more helpful, rather it is a combination of activities and resources that appeal to varying ages and learning styles that will make a difference in their organizations.


Therefore, from the beginning of the B.O.A.R.D. Initiative through the end of my leadership, there were always a broad array of Board development activities. Over the years, we conducted numerous focus groups of Board Directors; researched governance practices and Board demographics; detailed a 21-module governance curriculum; recorded 112 educational podcasts; matched many candidates with Board vacancies; designed a Board assessment survey and compiled data on hundreds of Boards; chaperoned dozens of nonprofit leaders to governance conferences; taught thousands of Directors through hundreds of workshops; assisted employers in placing employees on Boards; hosted two multi-year professional development institutes and trained 22 consultants to be more effective governance consultants; organized dozens of Dialogues with Directors to learn from each other; produced three 30-minute cable TV shows on governance; published a bibliography of Board resources; awarded more than $1.2 million through approximately 220 grants for Board development; partnered with BoardSource and the Alliance for Nonprofit Management to bring national resources to Milwaukee; established a membership organization for Board Directors; and, incubated BoardStar.


aA new market within the nonprofit sector was created—Board Directors—who were hungry for governance and willing to pay to learn.

aSeveral thousand local Board Directors were engaged in conversations about new governance policies and practices, and were eager to apply what they had learned.

aBoard Directors felt empowered enough to apply for funding to increase their effectiveness. Before our efforts, almost all applications to the Fund were initiated by staff; as a result of our work, approximately a third of the applications were pursued by Board Directors.

aMany Milwaukee-area Boards followed national trends by trimming the overall size of the Board; eliminating executive committees; reducing the number of standing committees; and, using a consent agenda at Board meetings.

aBasic Board training has become highly accessible.

aGrantee evaluations repeatedly reported that Board engagement significantly increased after working with a governance consultant.

“…gained a far more detailed understanding of the role of its Board of Directors in governing and supporting the organization and its activities.”

“One of the most important things our organization learned is that the Board has a much greater governance responsibility than previously realized…We expect long-term improvements in the areas of governance, fundraising, the training of new Directors and a better defined Board and staff relationship.”



Over the years, the strategies and techniques used to engage Boards may have changed from face-to-face and in print to digitized and online, but the goal is still to teach current Board Directors governance best practices and encourage talented individuals to see Board service as a valuable life experience. For the approximately 300,000 people who serve on a nonprofit Board in Wisconsin this is a tall order. The need is clear. Will BoardStar become more effective in reaching and engaging these eager Board Directors? Will the new iteration of the Fund continue investing in building the capacity of our local nonprofits by strengthening their governing bodies? Will Milwaukee be a model for other cities in building better Boards?



2 comments | Add a New Comment
1. Denise | July 30, 2014 at 04:53 PM EDT

A wonderful reflective piece. It does beg the question, will Milwaukee be a model? Not if we stop right where we are. We can if we continue to support capacity building of the local nonprofit Boards and the trained consultants who have invested all of these years in working with the organizations. It must be made clear that if not for the Fund that covered the cost of the trained consultants, many of the organizations that have survived and others who have moved to greater effectiveness would not have been helped.

This insightful piece reminds me that it was also the passion of the leaders aimed at the well being of our nonprofit community that kept the support going for nonprofits of all types.

Where do we go from here?

2. Scott Gelzer | August 06, 2014 at 07:16 AM EDT

One of your points on the impact says it all. Board Directors themselves felt they could engage in dialog with the Fund and apply for support. Usually, this was with knowledge and support of the Executive Director. I've been involved with philanthropy in multiple states and in varying formats. I've not seen this before or since. Congratulations to you and the Fund Partners - it was a breakthrough.

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