Episode 016: Points on the Board (Building a Strong Board of Directors for Your Nonprofit)

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A Board of Directors has significant influence over a nonprofit’s finances, strategy and governance. So, it only makes sense that nonprofits looking to be as effective as possible in advancing their mission need a solid Board of Directors.

If you’re looking to build the best board possible for your nonprofit organization (which—of course—you always are), how can you tell if your board members, or the candidates you’re evaluating to be future board members, have what it takes to propel your nonprofit and your mission?

What should you look for in a board member?

Is it financial savvy, nonprofit know-how, community connections, or is it a formula that’s different than what you might expect?

In this episode of The Wrap, our hosts Paul and Kim meet with Warren Averett’s own Michelle Sanchez, CPA, an expert in nonprofit strategy and finances, and guest Clara Reynolds, President and CEO of an impactful nonprofit in central Florida, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, to discuss how nonprofits should go about building a strong Board of Directors.

After listening to this podcast episode, you’ll be able to:

  • Set, communicate and agree on expectations between your nonprofit and your Board of Directors
  • Effectively vet potential board members to determine if they’re the right fit for your nonprofit and for the role
  • Equip your board and help them to feel comfortable in their role as your advisors
  • Move forward with securing diversity of thought within your board
  • Weigh the pros and cons of having term limits for your Board of Directors

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  1. Clara, as the CEO of a large nonprofit, what does your Board do for you and how important is it for them to be a strong functioning team?
  2. Where and how do you find potential board members?
  3. How can you effectively put together a Board of Directors? (once you find potential members, how do you know if they are a good fit)?
  4. Whatare some key things to discuss when interviewing potential new board members?
  5. What are a few key factors that make (your) Board successful?
  6. How important is it that the Board have specific nonprofit industry experience?
  7. How do you have the hard conversations with Board Members who are not meeting expectations?
  8. How does your board assess its’ effectiveness?
  9. For business leaders looking to join a nonprofit board, what advice do you have for them?


Intro (00:00) Welcome to The Wrap, a Warren Averett podcast for business leaders designed to help you access vital business information and trends when you need it so you can listen, learn, and then get on with your day. Time is tight. That’s why our advisers have wrapped up today’s most timely topics into a podcast with actionable advice. Now let’s get down to business.

Paul (00:22) Hey, Kim.

Kim (00:23) Hey, Paul.

Paul (00:24) Good to see you.

Kim (00:25) It’s great to see you as always.

Paul (00:26) Glad to be back on another podcast.

Kim (00:28) That’s right.

Paul (00:29) Today we’re in Tampa and we’re with Michelle Sanchez, one of our audit partners here in the Tampa office. Michelle, welcome.

Michelle (00:35) Good morning. Glad to be here.

Kim (00:36) You know, it’s like they say it’s always sunny in Philadelphia, but it’s always sunny in Tampa, except for the day we’re here.

Paul (00:41) Except for the day that we’re here.

Kim (00:43) And there’s a cold front coming in and it’s 58 degrees.

Paul (00:46) Well, I’m glad to be here. Today we’re going to be talking a lot about board of directors and trying to create and how do you find the right board of directors? And so who do we have with us today as a guest?

Kim (00:56) Yeah, I’m excited we have a guest with us today. We have Clara Reynolds and she’s with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. So welcome, Clara.

Clara (01:03) Thank you, Kim and Paul. Good morning! It’s so exciting to be here.

Kim (01:07) So can you tell us just a little bit about your organization and what you do and help us just get to know you a little better?

Clara (01:14) So we provide a variety of crisis related services to individuals here in Hillsborough County. We also partner with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, so when you call the 1800-273-TALK in Hillsborough County, you actually get our call center. We have a phone line specific for veterans. We have built one of the largest veterans populations in the country here in the Tampa Bay area, and so we’ll serve over 20,000 veterans that are in some sort of crisis, as well as programs for Children and youth. We’re also the community certified Rape Crisis Center, so rape victims in Tampa don’t go to hospital emergency rooms when they’ve been raped. They physically come to our location, our clinic, and we do about a rape exam a day. We provide trauma counseling to individuals across our community. We did over 8000 therapy sessions last year with infants all the way up to individuals that were in their eighties and nineties. We run a 911 basic life support ambulance service, that’s a partnership with our municipal fire department, Tampa Fire Rescue. And we also have an amazing program, working with travelers who may be in crisis. Last year we worked with over 23,000 passengers, some of them as minor as people missing their flight and their service animal needs food, all the way to a 14 year old that was about to be trafficked as she was responding to an ad that had her going to New York on a one way ticket, didn’t bring ID. Luckily, she wound up with us when a ticketing agent was really concerned, and so we were able to reunite her with her family. So truly anything across the spectrum, we served about 170,000 people last year.

Kim (02:49) Wow.

Paul (02:50) Wow.

Kim (02:52) That’s amazing work that you do. Thank you for all that you do for this community.

Clara (02:54) Thank you.

Paul (02:55) Well, we’re glad to have you here today specifically talking about you know, how you run as an organization and you can’t do it alone, and you can’t do with just your staff. Talk a little bit about, you know, just kind of jumping in the board of directors, what are you using them for on a daily basis, and what do they really, truly help you out with?

Clara (03:14) So as a nonprofit organization, the board of directors would be typically considered the owner of the organization and the agency, so they have both the governance and fiduciary responsibility of the organization. Their goal, their roles really, are to provide the budget, provide governance and to basically hire and oversee the CEO, which is my role in the organization. And then they give me the power and the authority to actually run the agency as needs to be based upon this mission. So the board of directors is incredibly important, and they’re also all volunteer, so that is a double edge for us. We need individuals who are very passionate about the mission of the organization. They need to understand that, but also realize that they’re volunteers as well and so when we’re looking for board of directors, we utilize a really strategic process to identify those individuals to meet a variety of requirement or needs that we have as an organization. We’re looking to fill gaps with those.

Kim (04:21) So, Michelle, I know you have some experience serving on a board. Can you maybe help us understand how do you put a board together? How do you put a strong board together and make sure that it’s effective for the organization?

Michelle (04:34) Sure, I think one thing Clara mentioned was finding those gaps. So it’s really important for the board to understand what community you serve, making sure you have folks on the board that represent those communities that you serve. Really even going back earlier than that is making sure you’re targeting folks that do have that passion and do have that mission for your board, making sure they understand the requirements for the board, because a lot of times people get into boards, especially nonprofit boards, not realizing that this is really a hands on board that you’re working with. So making sure that everybody has clear expectations, both the board member from what they can expect from the organization, and the organization as to what they can expect from the board.

Kim (05:17) That’s a good point because I think a lot of people think of giving financially to a board, but there’s so much more to serving than just writing a check.

Clara (05:28) Yes, it’s time, talent and treasure, and all three are equally as important in any nonprofit organization. As Michelle said, you know you’ve got some very small nonprofit organizations where the board truly is providing oftentimes even Treasury services, they’re providing a lot of those, or a large organization like mine with over 273 employees, it’s really much more of an advisory role, so they don’t have to get day to day into the weeds. We have one board member who always says, “It should be nose in, but fingers out,” and I think that that is a really neat way of conceptualizing how you need to be involved as a board member.

Paul (06:06) You were talking about passion, one of our values is “Passion to Win,” and that’s one of my favorite ones, outside of integrity, because if you don’t have that, you don’t have a sense of ownership on and that’s really what you’re kind of talking about from a passion perspective.

Clara (06:18) Absolutely, absolutely. All of our board members, they really have to feel comfortable with the mission and the work that we do. And the work that we do is not for everybody. You know, we find that there’s many board members that are drawn to our organization because maybe they’ve experienced a crisis, they had family members, so making sure that we’re balancing what their passions are with the needs of the organization. And I think Michelle brought up another very valuable point is that every board member comes to a board with their own, I don’t use the word agenda, but they do have things that they want to accomplish at on that board, and sometimes it’s to be on a letterhead, sometimes it’s to get experience. And so, as a CEO, I also recognize that I’ve got to meet their needs as well. So it definitely is a two way street, making sure that we’re meeting the needs of the organization, but also for these individuals as well, because there is no shortage, at least in the Tampa Bay area, of nonprofits. I think there’s close to 10,000 of them in the Tampa Bay area. So board members have their pick of what they want. We recognize as organizations we need strong board members, but there’s a huge market out there for board members as well. So it definitely has to be a give and take.

Paul (07:30) You say volunteer, obviously. But when you’re trying to find those board members, do you you interview them like you are like a normal employee? I mean, are you doing background checks? Are you doing things of that nature?

Clara (07:42) Paul has a great point. So to start off with, we have a strategic plan that was created by the board as well as the organization of really where do we want to go? How do we know that we’re meeting our mission? And so we created a strategic plan, understanding that we need board members to fulfill roles within that strategic plan. So we have a governance and nominating committee that vets individuals who are interested in joining the board. Sometimes it’s individuals that come to us, you know, “I’m really interested. I have a passion for your organization. I’d like to become involved.” Or it could be that we’ve got some gaps in our expertise, and so we go out and we seek that. So it is a seven step process to join the board of directors for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. It starts with, you know, looking at somebody’s background, their resume, meeting with a board member, and the board and myself, and then it gets vetted through that nominating committee, and then ultimately it’s voted on by the leadership. There is a level two background screen that every board member must go through, and they must be rescreened every three years. And then there’s a board orientation that happens before their very first board meeting. They’re paired with what we call a board buddy or a board mentor because our organization’s pretty complex. You’re not going to get it just sitting at a board meeting every other month. So it is a significant process that we go through, but it also is for two reasons. One – we want to make sure that that board member feels comfortable, and two – we want to make sure this is going to be a good fit because there is a lot of investment that happens as you onboard a board member. You want to know that they’re going to be able to, that they feel comfortable and that they’re going to be able to be there and for the long term, because we’re looking for a 3 to 5 year minimum commitment.

Intermission (09:27) Like what you hear so far? Make sure you never miss a show by clicking the subscribe button now. This podcast is made possible by listeners like you, thank you for your support. Now back to the show.

Kim (09:48) So as the CEO, I know that that you probably utilize your board as advisors, you know, to you and making sure that your bouncing ideas and your vision and your strategy, amongst other professionals. So how do you go about making sure that you’ve got a diversity of thought in the room? What are some things that you look for?

Clara (10:06) So we actually have a board matrix that looks at board members across a variety of categories. We’re looking for age diversity, ethnic diversity, racial diversity. We’re looking for a diversity of expertise anywhere from and what you might think traditional accountants, lawyers, but we also utilize legal because we need a lot of that legal expertise, healthcare expertise, educational from a school district and university perspective. We also want voices of clients to be represented on the board as well. And we have experimented with that in the past, so we’re looking for individuals that have a passion and feel comfortable about talking about their journey so that they can truly represent the client voice on our board of directors. So those were some of the ways that we work to ensure that there is that diversity of thought, that there’s the diversity and that the board represents the community because I think that’s another important piece in a community as diverse as Tampa, where you’ve got a large Hispanic population as well as African American, we really strive for the board to represent that as well, knowing that the other role that the board has is to be the door opener for us. You know we get a lot of state and federal funding. That requires board members that have those maybe legislative connections, those local connections to help connect those political leaders with our mission. And oftentimes, as you all know, it’s that person to person that makes the difference. So I utilize board members to do all of that work, making those connections in the community as well as making sure that I have places to bounce ideas, problems, issues off.

Kim (11:57) Now you mentioned the different matrix of diversity. But what is your thought? And do you have term limits for your board members and talk a little bit about why that would be important.

Clara (12:10) You know, that is such a great point. We do not have term limits, and I will tell you why. We have one board member that’s been on the board for 33 years. And the board feels very strongly about that individual. If that individual, when that individual rolls off, they may consider board terms. Right now, we run three-year terms and you have to be reelected by the board every three years. We have some individuals that that’s perfect for. They want to just be on for three years, maybe six years if they’re thinking about a leadership role within the organization. And we have some folks that just love, love, love what we do, they may be doing some volunteer work as well. So for us, we have allowed that to continue. I would say most of the boards, at least in the Tampa Bay community, do utilize term limits, usually 3 three-year terms.

Michelle (12:59) Yeah, and I would just add as long as you’re going to have terms, you need to also have mechanisms in place if a board member isn’t working out. So a lot of boards I see will have a shorter term limit, just so that if a year goes by and that board member isn’t performing as expected, isn’t making the meetings, isn’t meeting their financial commitments, whatever the requirements might be, that there’s a mechanism in place to kind of have that conversation with the board member

Michelle (12:24) And Michelle, you’ve been on some boards, you serve on some boards. Everything that Clara has been saying, I mean as somebody that’s been on other boards, what’s been different from your experience of being on a board versus, you know, kind of talking about how they look for board members?

Michelle (13:42) The successful boards I’ve been on have done pretty much exactly what Clara has mentioned. One thing also in the interview process, I would just add, is to make sure you’re finding out what other commitments they already have, because as Clara mentioned, a lot of people might just want to get that on their letterhead, on their resume, “that I serve on X Y Z board.” But sometimes if you’re overcommitted, you’re probably not giving your best to any of the boards that you’re on. So making sure that you understand what other commitments they have, what other potential conflicts of interest they have, so that they really can give 100% to your board.

Kim (14:17) So from both of you, what is your advice? If there is a professional that’s listening that maybe is at the point in their career where they feel like they have something to offer to a board, but if they’re just considering joining a nonprofit board, what’s your advice to them?

Michelle (14:34) I would say Do your homework. That is the number one thing. I actually serve on a board development committee right now, and I was talking with a potential board member and she had wonderful questions about how we operate, you know, what are the requirements? After going through those initial conversations, you know wanting to set up a meeting with the board member like Clara said, having a board buddy, having that mentor. So it’s really the onus is on that potential board member to do their homework, make sure they understand what they’re getting into, what the expectations are, and looking at it truly as, “Can I fulfill this commitment? Is this something I want to do? Am I passionate about it, and can I be effective in this position?”

Clara (15:16) And I I don’t think we can minimize the passion piece of this. Being passionate about the organization, you become the ambassador for the organization, you become the face out in the community, and you need to be able to believe in that mission to the point that you’re selling every time you walk out that door, you’re talking about the mission, it’s top of mind, it is your elevator speech. When you have that fire, everybody can feel it and that really, speaking specifically for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, one of our biggest issues is that folks don’t know we’re here, even though we serve 170,000 people. We’re not Diet Coke or Bud Light. We don’t have the marketing budget. We don’t have the name recognition. So it is a multi-pronged approach, and board members are the largest ambassador group that we have. And so I would strongly urge anybody out there that’s considering it, it’s one of the best things you could ever do. You’re going to get so much more than you’re going to give when you volunteer for a nonprofit organization, but just make sure that you truly are passionate about that mission.

Paul (16:26) And just for clarification, how big is your board?

Clara (16:28) So I have 24 board members right now. We can go up to about 30 to 50. I would say that the low twenties is probably the best. We have a very interesting mix. I have some board members who are strictly there because they write a large check and they have a large passion for the organization, but they cannot participate in a variety of things. I have others that are door openers, they are significant members in the community, their time is very, very limited, but what they bring is that ability, that gravitas if you will, that they can open doors and bring us connections. And then we have some individuals that are younger. They are newer in their careers, but they’re hungry and they’re passionate, so they’re providing the leadership at our committee levels and things like that. So I truly believe it takes a whole variety of individuals that can open doors, individuals that can write checks and individuals who have time in the governance. I think it takes a whole variety to be able to make a very well-functioning board. I don’t believe it could just be a one size fits all.

Kim (17:36) So we talked a lot about what you’re looking for, but one thing we haven’t mentioned is, do you feel like an individual needs to have nonprofit experience in order to be prepared to join a board?

Clara (17:45) I was on the Crisis Center’s board before I was the CEO, but I was on the board in the early nineties. I was the first clinician that they’d actually had on the board. I’m a licensed clinical social worker here in the state of Florida, and when the Crisis Center was coming up and really redeveloping the board, they brought me on as a very young social worker clinician, and so I hadn’t had any board experience but I’d had a lot of nonprofit experience at that point, and I’m not 100% sure how much I offered from the nonprofit background, it was much more so the clinical background and being able to have that clinical piece. We currently don’t have any nonprofit individuals on our board, and quite frankly, it’s almost a conflict of interest in some respects, particularly if the nonprofit that you serve on is also a fundraising nonprofit or is in the same field where you’re competing against grants and funding and donors, it can make for a very uncomfortable situation. I’m on a couple of other boards, and I won’t fund raise with those other boards because it’s just such a conflict for me in my organization.

Michelle (18:52) The only thing I would say to it’s not the actual experience, but when it comes to the financial governance, maybe offer them some training and understanding nonprofit financial statements because a lot of them have never seen nonprofit financial statements before so when you go into those board meetings to do those presentations, there’s just a glaze that kind of goes over everybody’s eyes. So training is helpful, so they at least understand what they’re looking.

Paul (19:16) Or they’re thinking about the financial statements from a for profit perspective and not the nonprofit.

Michelle (19:20) Correct, correct.

Kim (19:21) That’s a really great point.

Paul (19:22) So here on The Wrap, we like to wrap this up in about 60 seconds, kind of give everybody a summary of everything we’ve talked about. How would you wrap up really creating a strong board of directors for a nonprofit, Clara?

Clara (19:33) I think it’s incredibly important that in the nonprofit space that if anyone is interested in learning more about this, that they reach out. Reach out to nonprofits. Reach out to your faith community. Any places like that, maybe you’re interested in sports, animals, whatever your passion is, there is a nonprofit that’s available for you. Please don’t feel like you need to create another nonprofit. Find one that already exists and get involved. The more involved you can be, again, you will gain so much more than you will ever give in a nonprofit. And we need amazing people like you. We need those business leaders that see the world from a very different lens. That’s really where the diversity is.

Kim (20:11) Well, Clara, it’s clear that you have a Passion to Win, and it’s clear that the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay is very fortunate to have someone like you leading. So thank you so much for being with us today and for sharing your knowledge and your experience. We’ve really enjoyed getting to know you, and thanks for coming on our podcast.

Clara (20:30) Thank you for this opportunity to be here.

Paul (20:32) Well, thank you, Clara. Michelle, thank you very much for hosting us today.

Michelle (20:35) Thank you. It’s wonderful to have you here, and I wish I could say sunny Tampa, but became during a cold front.

Paul (20:40) We’ll come back again.

Close (20:42) And that’s a wrap. If you’re enjoying the podcast, please leave a review on your streaming platform. To check out more episodes, subscribe to our podcast series or make a suggestion for other topics to cover. Visit us at WarrenAverett.com/TheWrap

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