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Considerations for building a strong NPO board

Written by Viola Manuel | Inyathelo board member, strategy and implementation specialist

I have had the privilege of sitting on numerous boards, and am often asked where there is the greatest need for training and education among nonprofit organisation (NPO) board members.

In my experience, many of the larger corporates are guided and directed by a company secretary who can assist with guidelines for strong governance. Despite their voluntary nature, NPOs are accountable to their stakeholders, their donors and their staff for the effective use of funds. For many smaller companies and certainly for NPOs which cannot afford the services of a company secretary, good governance is more challenging. It is often only undertaken to complete grant applications or to fulfil requirements set by donors. NPO trustees often do not appreciate the protection and sustainability that strong governance brings.

In most of these cases the NPO board will rely on the knowledge that comes with the experience of its board members. It is accordingly important to appoint board members who have a proven working knowledge of governance. That working knowledge must, in turn, be kept up to date and the board members must hold each other accountable for the impact they have on steering the organisation. If financial sustainability is the strategic objective, and that is not being realised, then it isn’t enough to apportion blame to the executive team. The board must look closely at the decision they have taken or, in some instances, not taken and how it has contributed to the results.

In respect of some much-needed changes that would benefit boards, to ensure long-term sustainability, for me it is very clear that a level of responsible entrepreneurship must be encouraged. Board members need to understand risk and how to manage around that. If Covid-19 taught us anything, it is that everyone – including board members – needs to pivot  to retain a level of relevance as the world and the environment change. So as they move to a higher level of governance, they must be aware that “the show must go on”. Bogging down the progress of the NPOs with too many onerous processes and procedures, that hinder rather than allow progress without compromise to governance, is a situation to be avoided. Having a corporate mindset towards governance within an NPO is almost counterproductive.

For boards to be successful, there must also be insistence on board effectiveness reviews, which many boards do not take the time to engage in. Board training must be undertaken on an annual basis and member induction must become mandatory for all boards. Chairpersons need to insist that the board members come prepared to all meetings. The members must understand why it is important to make meaningful contributions to the discussions around strategic decisions.

Finally, insufficient attention is paid to building the resilience of NPO staff and board members and the attainment and maintenance of strong mental health. We focus on physical and emotional strength and emotional maturity, but very often leave no room for considerations, programmes and activities around mental strength and resilience. Resources must be set aside to deal with this, because the cost of not dealing with it is taxing on all levels. People are finding life really hard and they need a much higher level of intervention in the area of capacity building and resilience.

The weight of the responsibility of being on a board must be taken seriously and the toll it takes on the board members must be understood. Very often board members have to make difficult decisions that affect the lives of the staff and their families, and the impact of these decisions must not be dismissed.


 Originally published in our 2021 Annual Report

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