How To Create The Special Magic of A High-impact Nonprofit Board

How to create the special magic of a high-impact nonprofit board

How should my board be working together?

What “should” my board be doing?

How do I know if they’re a “good board”?


These are questions I get all the time. 

The answer is super nuanced, and there’s no right answer. The structure and function of every board should reflect the purpose and needs of that organization. The culture of each board should reflect the culture and constellation of that group. 

That being said, there are some common attributes of high-functioning boards.  

Let me start with the elephant in the room: Here’s what I’m not going to spend time talking about today. When we think about boards and engagement, our minds often immediately go to fundraising. But that’s not the magic.  A truly effective and high-impact board has its own special magic. 

I’m not saying that fundraising and resource generation is not part of what is expected of a board member on a high-functioning board.  I believe it is. 

But I also think that when we talk about what really lies at the heart of a high-functioning board, the practice or activity of fundraising is an outgrowth of something much deeper.  

By stepping up as board members, there is a team of people who have said: I’m bringing my talents, skills, connections, and interests to bear for this mission that I care deeply about. 

Externally, truly connected and engaged board members are the organization’s fiercest cheerleaders and most vocal ambassadors. 

Internally, they are the Executive Director’s and staff’s most powerful co-strategists and thought partners. 

When it comes down to it, an organization’s mission is its north star. Next to the Executive Director, the Board should be the group of people who see it most clearly, and who is running as fast as possible toward it. 

What lies at the core of this is a strong board culture rooted in a special kind of trust called Trust For Action. 

This is actually at the foundation of any high-functioning team.  Without this type of trust your board will not grow, and will struggle to coalesce and govern together as a group without the Executive Director pulling and leading. 

So what is Trust For Action? 

I first learned about this when I was helping to design an action network in NYC  – that’s a whole other experience,  and action networks are a fascinating vehicle for bringing about systemic change, which I’ll talk about on this podcast. 

One of the concepts that were introduced to me was Trust for action as opposed to trust for liking. 

When most of us think about trust, we think of trust for liking. Trust for liking is about “How much do I like this person?”  That’s the wrong question to ask of a group of people with whom you need to take collective action. It’s a “nice to have” but not actually the thing to be focused on. Instead, ask these two questions: how are values aligned are we? And how much can I count on this person?

Trust for action is a form of connection that is focused on a group’s ability to work together towards a common goal.  The more of this type of trust each member has for one another, the more committed to the end goal they are, and thus the more engaged in achieving that end goal they will be. 

Trust for action requires a belief in, and commitment to, a shared set of core values. This common set of beliefs allows people with different life experiences, perspectives, and approaches to work together effectively despite their difference.  The key is to believe in the same end goal and to trust that the other people on your team are as dedicated as you are to achieving it together.  

Ultimately when this type of trust exists, board members feel invested in taking, and are able to take, action together – as a coherent and effective team. 

As you think about assessing and building trust for action on your board, I want to give you four questions to ask to identify where the bonds are strong. 

I’ve created a checklist capturing these questions for you and your board to use –

  • Question One: Are we all committed to the same end goal? Are we here for a reason that I care deeply about?  This is where clarity about the mission is critical.  When the north star is fuzzy, and the strategic clarity – the priorities and the organization’s goals – are unclear, engagement will start to wane.
  • Question Two:  How much can I count on other people to stay committed to the end goal? Can you be counted on to follow through on your commitments? This is where clarity about the expectations is critical.   People need to know what they are being asked to do when they sign up, and those expectations need to be consistent. It’s also important that they look around and see that the other people on the board are following through. The absence of these can break trust. Conversely, this dimension of trust for action is demonstrated by things like showing up to meetings; seeing the concrete ways in which each member contributes.
  • Question Three: Do we have a set of shared values that I can turn to? For example, if I truly believe that we have a shared value around making sure that the organization is financially healthy, then I will trust that the actions you take are in service of that, whether I agree with the actions or not.    This makes wading into the messy and sometimes uncomfortable zone of tough conversations, decision-making, financials, etc. easier, thereby reducing barriers to – or friction around – engagement.  This is also where the board and organizational culture are vital to communicate and stick to.  Too often, boards bring people on for reasons that aren’t about being a right fit for the organization – big name, a big network, wealth, etc.. None of these necessarily support trust for action. They can actually undermine it. If the person’s values don’t align with the way that the board works or the way the Executive Director leads (e.g., their style, the organization’s priorities, etc.) you’ll struggle to keep them engaged. They simply won’t feel that they belong.
  • Question Four: Am I able to bring value to this endeavor?  A belief in one’s own value on the team is a critical part of trust for action.  This is where working individually with board members to make sure that they have a meaningful way to be involved, that their skills and interests are actually in alignment with the needs and strategic priorities of the organization, and that their contributions are recognized and celebrated, is critical.

So these are the attributes of trust for action to think about and assess with your board.

Definitely checklist capturing these questions and share it with your board. 


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