It is a tough time for all leaders, including those leaders for nonprofit organizations, with everything going on right now during these tough times. It is even harder for decision-making when there are major differences, goals, or communication strategies between the different leadership levels of a nonprofit organization. Whether the nonprofit board is bored, or reactive to long-standing issues, there are strategies and assessments that can assist a nonprofit’s leadership with getting everyone on the same page and engaged with constructive push back.

With a full assessment of the board governance, development framework, strategic plan, and leadership skills available, a nonprofit can leverage the skills of their board to turn challenging times into positives problems that provide ample opportunities lead by a great group of people.

Introducing Tom Phillips 

Mr. Phillips is the Executive Principal for TL Phillips Consulting Services which provides strategic and high-level professional management support to non-profit and government organizations. He has almost 40 years of experience in management support, strategic planning, resource development, public policy/advocacy, board governance, project development, and collective impact collaborations.

Mr. Phillips previously served more than 15 years as the President and CEO of Capital Workforce Partners, a $24M regional Workforce Development Board.  Mr. Phillips has an extensive history of civic leadership having won numerous awards from the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals and the National Workforce Association.

Mr. Phillips has an MBA from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an MPA from the University of Hartford, and BA in Public Administration from Central Connecticut State University.

Nonprofit Board Members and Engaging Them

Nonprofit board

The board’s role is fiduciary oversight, to assist as fundraisers, provide funders, and ensure mission success for the full organization. A great board does all this and more when properly engaged and motivated, especially during times like COVID where board meetings are now on zoom and not in the board room.

Tom believes a high percentage of board members are bored and it comes down to board engagement. In the first place, Board membership engagement is an opportunity for board members to talk about particular topic challenges or opportunities. Board meetings or committee meetings become stale and boring if it becomes a simple show-and-tell or “going down the agenda” exercise.

Board members want to be utilized by the chief executive, staff members, and the rest of the board as an asset for the nonprofit organization.

Onboarding is important through in-person onboarding, job description, etc. Especially for the more in-depth and technical positions for say the different committees like the development, governance, or finance committees. Board members need the knowledge necessary in order to be effective and participate fully enough to be engaged. They need to understand the system within the nonprofit, the environment in which it is in, and all the key stakeholders that affect the mission.

Structuring Your Nonprofit Board and Board Meetings

Most executives that Tom speaks with welcome the idea of a push back board, as long as it’s constructive and going to improve the operation. When the leadership of the board or their fellow board members feel that there is an issue with the current board, Tom suggests asking the following series of questions to get a reality check on any issues or potential conflict.

  • Does the board feel as if they are effectively leveraging the board leadership’s challenge?
  • Does the board of directors feel like it’s easy to attract and retain talented and committed board members?
  • Are the board officers from the executive committee and the rest of the board consistent?
  • Are there regular performance evaluations of the board and a succession plan to develop a new leadership team?
  • Does the board have foundational core knowledge of the nonprofit they are running?
  • Are all board members fully engaged?

Using the answers from this first step of questions, the next steps can be determined for a solid plan to create a fully successful board. With a strong voice and better ability to lead, the full board can then focus on driving the organization’s mission and growth. The right governance practices and member knowledge will guide the board in their work toward that.

Board Governance and Development Plan for Your Nonprofit

The next step in the formal process of bringing the whole board together is to develop the board governance and development plan. This is a formal strategy that eventually becomes an ad hoc committee and can merge into a formalized board governance committee. Tom recommends a series of three pulse surveys for an overall process and letting the ad hoc committee be responsible for driving the governance and development plan. The pulse surveys will help to understand what goals and outcomes the board might want to get out of the full exercise with creating this strategy.

Following the start of this work, it is time to move on to evaluating the organization’s core values, mission, vision, and the value proposition, etc. In these times when things are changing so drastically on a week by week basis, it is important to re-evaluate the organization’s operations and their relevancy to the core guiding principles. Prior to COVID 19, several nonprofits were experiencing mission creep where they would start several projects and programs while the funding was plentiful. Programs and projects now need to be evaluated as funding becomes scarce and grant monies begin to dry out.

After evaluating the mission and its relation to its operations, it is a good practice to evaluate the funding, the board leadership roles, and then define the leadership roles for the organization. This is another area where a pulse survey can be utilized to see how the board might be evaluating the leadership of the organization.

When changes need to be made, the board’s knowledge becomes a critical component of what those changes might look like and how those changes can be implemented. A pulse survey for assessing board knowledge can include the following questions.

  • Where are the board members getting their information?
  • What information do they have?
  • What do they need to have more of now to make them more effective as an organization?

Tom then recommends creating what he calls a “knowledge platform”. This knowledge platform is used to educate the board and serve as a way to strengthen the board’s endeavors for the organization, whether at board meetings, meetings with stakeholders, round tables with philanthropic organizations, meetings with elected officials, or anywhere else that this knowledge will be helpful to have on hand.

These exercises will also help strengthen board governance and how meetings are run. The structure of things like a consent agenda, the executive committee, the difference in standing committees versus ad hoc committees all need to be a part of the step by step process in order to follow a framework set by a board governance and development plan.

For the pulse surveys, Tom uses Survey Monkey to get information from the board and help ask the questions necessary for structuring a successful board. Survey Monkey helps to summarize the data and has an easy reporting dashboard.

Board Member Terms and New Board Member Leadership

Some boards have term limits, depending on their structure and bylaws. Part of developing the governance and development plan is to evaluate the organization’s bylaws. These will define how long a board chair leads the board and how the chief executive for the nonprofit is hired or let go. This is important because the first instinct when something goes wrong is to blame the board chair or chief executive.

Tom’s advice is don’t wait for that to happen if it hasn’t happened already – don’t be in reactive mode. There are mechanisms that can be put in place to set leadership up for success and to communicate the goals and strategies of new leadership when they are brought on. When a new board chair comes on, typically the board knows them because they are usually already sitting board members as part of a broader leadership pipeline. However, it is important to get information on what is their priorities as board chair will be and what they want to see accomplished in the next year besides what is required. The answers to these questions will help to align the full team.

New leadership could also potentially use some creativity with the meeting if there is an already existing and lasting structure in place. Consent agendas and dashboard reports bring some structure to the meeting while also creating a knowledge platform that helps with communicating metrics. There can be dashboards for communications, social media, finances and cash flow, operations, grant project performance, fundraising, etc. The dashboard is a great way to visualize key performance indicators.

The Role of Governance in Relation to the Organization’s Mission

There are strategic priorities for the full board to follow and Tom suggests requiring each standing committee to come up with a work plan on how their committee is going to align their work with those strategic priorities. This can be a one-page work plan and then report out using a dashboard structure. This work plan then guides that working committee for the whole year and they can report on their progress each quarter. This visualizes how their work as a committee supports strategic priorities and the organization’s mission.

Within the scope of aligning the full board on the same strategic priorities, some push back may happen to ensure the board is critically thinking how best to achieve those priorities. Some board members may not feel comfortable alienating fellow board members and sometimes this is where the surveys with smaller groups may not be the most effective tool. In general, a major theme that Tom sees within threads of the different surveys they have conducted with nonprofits is the size of the board and what that means.

Tom did note he has seen several reoccurring themes with the multiple surveys he has conducted with nonprofits over the years. Some of the common threads he found were:

  • Regulatory components because of certain funding guidelines.
  • Board members not feeling engaged enough at meetings or like their talents weren’t being utilized for the job.
  • The want for more information so they as board members could be more supportive, engaged, and effective.

Tom thinks it is critical then to get the right structure in place and create annual performance evaluations on the full board level, as well as with individual board members. This is where the government committee starts as an ad hoc committee to put together the board governance and development plan to be implemented. They then become the committee that will on the other end monitor the performance and evaluating how effective the board members are carrying out the plan. The governance committee’s role is really oversight, and the board governance and development plan provides this oversight by assessing all aspects of leadership, the knowledge platform, and the governance structure.

Smaller Nonprofit Board Service and Board Recruitment

Smaller organizations often do have smaller boards. Have to use a more flexible structure in case someone cannot physically be at meetings – utilize calling in policies. The amount of people on a nonprofit’s board differs from organization to organization.

The expertise and perspectives sitting on the board is more important than the size. A nonprofit really wants to recruit key stakeholders to sit on their board. This is especially important for smaller nonprofits that can rely on the board for gaps from staffing limitations. Board representation should include stakeholders that understand the services being offered, partners the nonprofit works with, and stakeholders that could help advance the mission one way or another.

One strategy for leveraging the board for resources, which is helpful during times like in this pandemic, is to include board members from organizations for a conversation on collective impact. This conversation is helpful for resource sharing when funding is hard to come by.

Final Thoughts on Nonprofit Board Leaders

The first goal is to understand the board and assess each board member with developed questions to determine how long they have been on the board, what committees have they been involved with, and how effective were they with supporting the organization.

Assessing board members like this will help gain a sense of what is happening with the current board and which board members are truly there to achieve the mission and which ones aren’t. Then one can strengthen the board members that are engaged and possibly move the ones that aren’t out to bring in future board members that would really help the organization move forward.

Ad hoc committees are a perfect way to bring in non-board members that can be used as potential future board members. The ad hoc committee allows that potential board member to start growing their knowledge of the organization and get involved with its mission.

Reaching Tom Phillips

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