The Hidden Ingredient of a High-Functioning Board

by Joan Garry

Want more tips on creating a high-functioning board? Watch my free recorded workshop, “Let’s Build the Nonprofit Board of Your Dreams!” In it, I teach you how to fix a low-performing board. And it won’t even take that long!

A board meets and the central topic is finance – the organization faces serious financial challenges. The chair has been at the helm for a year or so and wants board meetings to be productive and has created an evaluation form. Excellent!

Evaluations are returned and one comment stands out. “Can’t we do better than Subway for lunch?”


Board meeting expenses, including meals, are usually line items in the organization’s budget. If an organization is struggling financially, every board member should feel lucky to have Subway sandwiches and frankly should have paid for the lunch themselves. 

Not only do I wish I was not making this up but I had to choose from a mental library of dozens of outrageous board behaviors when writing this blog post.

Does this standalone story indicate board function overall? No. What does? Stay with me and I will tease it out.

But first, a quiz:

What is the hidden ingredient of a high-functioning board?

Let’s try multiple choice:

A. A fantastic board chair

B. A board that gives and gets lots of money

C. A board that monitors finances closely and insists on a robust reserve

D. Board meetings that start and end on time

E. High-functioning committees

There are indeed many ingredients of a high-functioning board and it is possible that you selected option A, especially if you are a regular reader of mine.

You might want it to be option B – I get it – I spent a decade as an executive director and that certainly would make life easier for an executive director and any development staff.

There is some appeal to option C. Of course, you want the board to pay attention. But how close is close enough? And how robust is sufficient but not overkill? (I actually had a client with a $2mm annual budget and a $16mm reserve that was nearly impossible to tap into for investment and innovation! That is way too excessive.)

And what about option D? If you ask me, board members would like a bit more of and deserve a bit more respect. Option D is a basic demonstration of respect.

So that leaves us with option E.

High-functioning committees? Really? Yes, really. Before I explain why, first we have to define a high-functioning committee because I do not believe that we all have a shared definition.


1. A Clear Charge

Why does this committee exist? Not only is the charge not clear for most committees, it is the wrong charge. Many folks on boards believe the charge of the Development Committee is to ensure that the organization hits its revenue targets. Some others think that when you are asked to be on this committee, you have to do all the fundraising. No, and no. The charge will clarify the board’s work – work it can and should do independently of the staff.

2. Annual Goals

Good board members raise their hands to do important work. I promise you that is true. They also need something. They need to know what success looks like. Because (and here’s a big headline of this blog post): board members want to be successful!

3. Accountability 

If you have goals and know what success looks like, guess what? Board members know what they have to do to get an A! And folks interested in board service are accustomed to getting A’s.

4. The Chance to Shine

Board members (and humans in general) need moments of appreciation. Providing a committee with the opportunity to strut their stuff at a board meeting is an opportunity to grab a bit of spotlight and appreciation from staff and fellow board members. That puts gas in the tank!  

OK, I’ve kept you in suspense long enough. I’ve told you that high-functioning committees are the secret to a high-functioning board. Now you know the elements of a high-functioning committee – maybe the ‘why’ is getting just a bit clearer.  

Allow me to spell it out.


1. They clarify the board’s work.

It feels novel to suggest that the board has its own work but remember my twin-engine jet metaphor. The board engine has its own work to do that is separate and yet in partnership with the staff engine. 

Example: The Finance Committee launches an initiative to ensure that all board members have some basic financial literacy – a goal in the service of a charge to ensure that all board members deliver on the responsibility of strong fiscal stewardship.

2. They help build a board leadership pipeline.

When a committee chair has great guidance, works with their committee to set a charge and goals, and engages with members to do their homework in advance of a board presentation, guess what? They are exercising the muscles necessary to lead the entire board.

3. They model great board engagement.

Why is it that so many board committees have attendance issues? It’s not that your board members don’t care. Maybe there are a few of those. But not the majority. Board members are more inclined to attend meetings when the goals are clear, when they can contribute, and when they understand what success looks like. A responsible board member shows up for class to ensure they nail that “A” grade.

4. They introduce and model accountability.

The great thing about this kind of model is that it uses the ‘carrot’ and not the ‘stick’. The board presentation enables the committee to feel a real sense of accomplishment for a job well done because they have clearly defined the job.

5. They focus the board on its own work.

Remember my earlier comment about the development committee? A development committee does not exist to ensure that the organization hits its goals, but rather, to make sure that board members have the skills and tools to be five-star ambassadors, inviting more folks to know and do more for the organization. 

It also serves a peer accountability role – a champion and catalyst to ensure that board members deliver on their responsibility to “increase financial resources.” 

And so that charge can then lead to goals the board owns – overseeing an elevator pitch workshop at a board meeting or developing a simple annual fundraising plan in partnership with staff and taking responsibility for ensuring its completion.


One last suggestion: don’t try to overhaul your committees all at once. Instead, during a 1:1 meeting (the co-pilot meeting), the two of you – the board and staff leader – identify the committee with the greatest chance of success. 

Invest in that committee chair and head off to the races. Work with that committee chair to set the charge and then let them head off to set goals with committee members. The three of you review the goals, tweak them as necessary, and then the committee chair shares the charge and goals with the full board. 

Other committee members will take notice and then you can lean in with the other committees.

I can’t say it often enough: a high-functioning board has high-functioning committees that do their own work. They are not staff-driven. They have clear markers for success and are held accountable to those markers by reports and presentations that allow board members to feel valuable and appreciated for their contributions.

Doing good work, understanding what success looks like, and being appreciated for achieving that success – who doesn’t want that?

Your most valuable volunteers sure do.

Want more tips on creating a high-functioning board? Watch my free recorded workshop, “Let’s Build the Nonprofit Board of Your Dreams!” In it, I teach you how to fix a low-performing board. And it won’t even take that long!