Board Alignment: The Key to Nonprofit Success and Impactful Leadership

By Kathleen Reardon,  as seen in the December 2023 edition of Business NH Magazine


There was a solar eclipse recently and as I stood outside with my silly cardboard eclipse glasses, spying on the sun being covered by the New Moon, it got me thinking about alignment. Specifically, it got me thinking about alignment that happens when a nonprofit board is doing its best work.   

Alignment, like when the sun, the New Moon, and the earth come together for a spectacle, is core to organizational success. When board members are engaged, working in partnership, and aligned on strategy, great things can happen. 

Getting the right people on board

Getting the right people on board takes intention on both sides. We know that the most impactful boards are made up of people who share a passion for an organization’s mission while also bringing their unique skills and perspectives to the boardroom.

To better represent the communities they serve, board leaders must look beyond their existing social networks. According to a 2021 BoardSource report, board recruitment is easier when the desired mix of diversity, skills, and connections is clearly defined. Finding candidates who are passionate because of what the mission means to them personally and who are also skilled, means digging deep and being intentional about recruitment.

Successful strategies include reaching out to program participants (mission driven), seeking referrals from leaders within their service area (community driven), and reaching out to young professionals (leadership driven). With the right tools and training, the perspectives, questions, and voices from these three recruitment areas can strengthen the board and organization for years to come.

When thinking about joining a board, I encourage people to ensure that their personal values align with the organization’s mission and board culture. Ask questions and be familiar with how the board functions before joining. At the Center, we offer trainings where prospective board members can learn what questions to ask and how to navigate the onboarding process. 

I also encourage them to reflect on the unique value they offer— what skills, experience, and networks do they bring to the organization and how their service will impact their communities. Nonprofit boards are evolving very quickly, making this an incredibly exciting time to consider board service. 

Clarity of the board’s purpose

We have a saying, “if you’ve seen one board, you’ve seen one board.” While all boards are charged with strategic and financial oversight, no two boards are alike. The board’s work varies – based on things such as the organizational lifecycle, history, leadership style, and the board’s culture. 

In high-performing organizations, board members understand what is expected of them and hold each other accountable for their responsibilities. Studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between the board’s impact on the organization and its understanding of its own roles and responsibilities. 

Shared Leadership 

Perhaps one of the most critical elements for alignment is the partnership between the board chair and the chief executive. In the best-case scenario there is mutual respect, trust and communication, along with shared understanding of the organization’s strategy. 

I must admit that this element is near and dear to my heart as a nonprofit CEO. The role can be daunting at times and knowing that my board chair is in my corner is affirming. 

I’ve been fortunate to have several amazing board chairs – each of whom brought their personal style and perspective to the role. When I first joined the Center as CEO, my chair stated her priority was to be supportive while I was getting my feet under me. She gave me space to determine how I would lead the organization and was there when I sought advice from her. 

My second board chair took a more structured approach, setting up regular in-person check-ins to facilitate consistent communication. This was particularly helpful because the board had just adopted a new strategic plan and we were assessing the Center’s business model to position it for growth and sustainability. As I’ve learned, this shared leadership model is dynamic. The right board at the right time builds trust and drives impact.

Strong board culture

The board chair also sets the tone for the board’s culture – the way that it operates as a collective. They help foster an environment where board members respect each other’s viewpoints, ensure all voices are heard, work together towards a common goal, and celebrate collective success. 

Studies have shown that there is a relationship between social time amongst board members and a strong board culture. Boards that occasionally share a meal together are more inclusive than those that don’t. In many ways, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, boards are ultimately a group of people – many of whom don’t know each other very well – who come together around a cause. Getting to know each other as individuals paves the way for trust and collaboration.

An opportunity to live your values

As I said before, it’s an exciting time to consider board service. Being on a board is a powerful way to live your values and make a difference in the community. And while you may be recruited for your “time, talent and treasure”, you’ll likely find that you gain as much as you give from being involved. 

Being on a board provides unique experiential development: you gain leadership experience and expand your communications skills. You get to peer behind the curtain and learn more about how that nonprofit makes an impact in the community and how they run their business. And you contribute your personal and professional experiences to help shape the decision-making process. 

When your values align with the nonprofit that you want to serve, then you are best able to lead, support, and advocate.

How the NH Center for Nonprofits can help

Education and training can encourage strong alignment. At the Center, we offer many training opportunities throughout the year for nonprofit leaders and board members. Our signature board governance program, the Hoffman-Haas Fellowship helps prepare people for board service. We offer programs that cover the fundamentals of board leadership and fundraising, as well as more advanced concepts such as inclusive leadership and advocacy training. 

When board members come together, aligned with the organization’s leadership and strategy, they have the potential to effect real change in their community and, like an eclipse, that is something truly spectacular.