September 8, 2023

How to make your board more effective

To build an effective board, the right structures and processes need to be put in place.

5 min read

While having the right individuals on a board is pivotal, achieving an effective board requires us to delve deeper. It is essential to establish the proper frameworks and protocols that can enable the board to maximise its contributions. Board members come from diverse backgrounds and expertise, and having the right structures in place would aid them in advancing the nonprofit’s mission.

Highlighted below are a few catalytic conditions that can make board governance more effective.

Mission alignment: Most board members are typically invited by the founder or existing board members because they are a good match, either personally or professionally. However, it is important that individuals that are invited to join a board align with the organisation’s mission. This will ensure that their contribution to the organisation is driven due to reasons beyond their relationship with other board members or founders.


Purpose: Where board members join with an intent to fulfil a personal purpose, they tend to be more proactive, agile, and willing to support the organisation’s needs at a given point in time. This approach also guarantees that individuals are comfortable stepping down if they realise they are unable to participate effectively, creating room for new talent to join the board when necessary. When individuals assume roles solely to offer their skills or expertise without a sense of personal purpose, other priorities often transform into obstacles.

Clarity of role: It is critical for all board members to be fully cognisant of both the board’s role as well as their own individual responsibilities. This awareness makes it possible to clarify and meet one another’s expectations as well as makes communication between the executive and the board seamless. It also enables the organisation to seek additional support from the board.

The extent to which a board can contribute significantly hinges on the level of eagerness displayed by the executive/founder to seek assistance. When the executive consistently and judiciously pursues this approach, the board gains the chance to ascertain not whether they can support the mission but how they can do so.

Structures and processes

In addition to this, it is imperative that the structures and processes put in place empower the board members to work to the best of their abilities.

1. Setting the agenda

A common concern voiced by both board members and executives is that the agenda is often not given the attention it deserves. This issue typically arises from either having an excessive number of topics to cover in a limited period of time or including less critical matters on the agenda that end up consuming valuable discussion time. Planning the agenda for the year in advance ensures preparedness on both the executive’s and the board’s end. It also creates greater ownership and accountability. For instance, allocating a board meeting for the approval of the strategic and financial plan, another for the mid-year progress review, and a third for self-evaluation presents a well-balanced distribution of critical matters requiring attention.

2. Scheduling the meeting

A good board will meet and ensure maximum participation at least thrice a year, ideally every quarter. One approach to guarantee this is by scheduling the meeting dates well in advance, at the start of each year, enabling participants to allocate time and synchronise their calendars accordingly. For instance, fixing the fourth Saturday of every fourth month is an easy and simple way to do this. Being consistent about this can be habit forming for the board. This gives enough time for preparation and also lowers the chances of anyone being absent. And if despite this board members struggle to make the time, it might be wise to double-check on their commitment and interest in serving the position.

a network of pure white staircases--nonprofit board
Frequent self-reflection is essential for a successful board. | Picture courtesy: Rawpixel

3. Providing the required information

An informed board is an effective one. The information infrastructure predominantly consists of pre-reads and post-meeting materials (minutes). Sending board members regular updates reduces the need for preparing large documents ahead of the board meeting. The onus of reading the material is certainly on the board member. Another way to ensure that information is being shared accurately is to dedicate some time in the meeting for questions that board members may have. Encouraging preparedness by setting clear expectations often yields the best outcomes from the board.

It’s crucial that every board member leaves the meeting with a clear understanding of the next steps.

Prior to the meeting, it is important to disseminate information in a systematic and easy-to-understand manner. One way to go about this is to add updates, actions taken, and what needs to be done. This can be followed up with annexures that give out details of discussions as a reference. It is also useful to indicate what decisions have to be taken and outline the time allocation for these issues.

It’s crucial that every board member leaves the meeting with a clear understanding of the next steps. This could be achieved by setting milestones for the board and the executive. Sending out the minutes of the meeting within 48 hours is also important since the discussion is still fresh in everyone’s mind. This can follow the same template as the pre-reads with discussion details recorded as annexures. 

Interim board engagement

Sharing updates can be a very easy way to engage board members in between meetings. However, it’s useful to decide on the frequency of these updates with the board itself. If monthly, then updates need to be brief, with key highlights. Engaging individual board members for their expertise between board meetings will ensure that they are able to contribute optimally and feel a greater connect with the organisation as well. It’s also helpful to use the time in between to build greater knowledge about the cause or have interesting sessions with the stakeholders of the organisation, or conduct a visit to the community, an interaction with the recipients of the services, a meeting with a donor or the fieldworkers, and so on.

Creating personalised board engagement plans for each board member also enables the executive to maximise their contributions effectively.

Promoting self-reflection

Frequent self-reflection is essential for a successful board. The board must ascertain whether they are adding value to the organisation as well as fuelling their own growth. A few straightforward questions are sufficient to initiate self-reflection on their contributions:

  1. What did we plan to do?
  2. Did we have the right people on board to do what we wanted to?
  3. Did individual members give the time and commitment that was expected of them?
  4. If yes, what were the outcomes? Are we satisfied with the same?
  5. If not, what were the reasons? How can those be addressed?
  6. What do we want to do going forward?
  7. How do we want the executive to support the delivery of our role?
  8. Is being on the board adding value to us as individuals?
  9. Do we feel confident that we know everything we need to as a board?

Engaging in self-reflection at the board level signals a commitment to purposeful service. Although not widely adopted in the social sector in India, there is a growing curiosity about embracing this method to cultivate a more robust and transparent performance culture.

Having a good board requires not only good people, but also supporting mechanisms that will inspire them to do their job well.

Know more

  • Read this article to learn more about building a strong board.
  • Read this to learn more about engaging board members.  
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Aarti Madhusudan-Image
Aarti Madhusudan

Aarti Madhusudan is the founder of Governance Counts, an initiative which helps nonprofits build more effective boards. This includes identifying key board related issues and recommending good practice guidelines. She has consulted several Indian and international organisations. Aarti is passionate about volunteering, and runs Whiteboard, an iVolunteer initiative that brings senior corporate professionals together as a group to provide strategic guidance pro bono to nonprofits. She volunteers herself with DaanUtsav. Aarti is an alumna of TISS, Mumbai and NIMHANS, Bangalore.