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Easy Steps to Take Your Board from Good to Great

Health foundations have a significant opportunity to harness the influence and involvement of board members as great allies in advancing the mission. Too often, however, board members begin their tenure with a significant disadvantage in that their roles and responsibilities have been poorly or shallowly defined and explained.


Board members generally come to nonprofit organizations with the desire to affect positive change. They wish to leverage their unique skills, insights and influence to move the mission forward. Yet, many board members will confide they were thwarted in their intentions to contribute by not having access to the information needed to be successful. Given the competitive advantage board members can bring to the organization, it is essential to start and to continue supporting a high value relationship with each board member through access to information and tools.


The fundamental basics board members need are clearly articulated roles and responsibilities. These should include not only collective roles the board fulfills as a body—such as fulfilling a fiduciary, governance role—but also individual volunteerism roles—such as advancing fund development. Having a clear and specific “job description” for board members provides direction to those wanting to meaningfully contribute while also providing a mechanism for accountability.

In the health foundation, one of the most important roles to unpack is the board’s role in advancing philanthropy. Simply, the health foundation or development council is established with the clear and explicit purpose to foster charitable giving to support the mission. Given this clarity of purpose around what impact looks like, each board member should know how to engage in a range of activities to support fund development. Board leaders also need information on the financial rationale for fund development, the hospital’s current case for support, how to identify aligned partners and much more.


Given the competitive advantage board members can bring to the organization, it is essential to start and to continue supporting a high value relationship with each board member through access to information and tools.

To position board leaders for success in engaging their own civic, social and professional networks in philanthropy, it is also important to discuss personal board giving. While this topic is often glossed over or under played, it is an essential conversation to have. Board members deserve to know why their personal examples of giving are important. Philanthropy leaders can share great stories to inspire and connect with these stakeholders, while providing guidance that supports board members’ decisions when considering and making their personal gifts.


Beyond these basics, board members often express a desire to have additional information about the legal, fiduciary roles of a board that guides a separate, 501(c)(3) public charity or supporting organization. These leaders also value having context on the distinction between the board’s governance role and the philanthropy officer’s management role. Creating transparency and conversation around these issues enables a board to focus its time and talent on the right things and to avoid dabbling in issues that fall outside the board’s role.


To kickstart and to maintain the board’s effective and meaningful engagement, there are a few good places to start:

  1. Recruitment conversations with potential board members should share details of roles and expectations in a forthright manner. People deserve to know exactly what they are signing up for in advance of agreeing to serve.

  2. Board orientation and onboarding processes should be information rich. Board members should leave with a solid understanding of the board’s role but also the mission objectives to achieve, the culture and social norms of the board, the current strategic plan and more. It’s also valuable to provide a mission experience such as a backstairs tour or briefing with the CEO.

  3. Board manuals must be more than a fat binder stuffed with old minutes, bylaws and boring historical documents. Instead, the board manual should be an accessible, compelling, relatable document that provides information and places the big picture in context. While creating a strong board manual can be a significant lift, it can be a game changer in supporting board engagement. There are also ways to “hit the easy button” on this issue, such as buying an off-the-shelf, turnkey board manual such as Accordant’s annually updated board manual for health foundations.

  4. Annual stay conversations also add great value. Take the time to talk to each board member near the close of each year to see how their board service experience is going and to ask what training, tools and resources could make them more confident and effective.

Board members are deeply valuable allies when selected, onboarded and supported appropriately. Therefore, being thoughtful and deliberate about taking the easy steps above can provide board members with the resources they need and deserve to support individual and collective success.


For Board Discussion:
  • Does our board currently have a clearly documented set of board roles and responsibilities? If so, are they being utilized? Are those roles consistent with enabling the board to do its best work?

  • How could our board improve the orientation and onboarding experience?

  • What written, video-based and live training resources could be instrumental in moving our board from good to great?


Accordant Perspectives_Board from Good to Great
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About the Author: Betsy Chapin Taylor, FAHP, is the CEO of the health philanthropy consulting firm, Accordant. You can reach her at Betsy@AccordantHealth.com or through LinkedIn.

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The Accordant Team has published a number of books to advance the efforts of health care philanthropy and help development leaders everywhere. 

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Accordant is honored to collaborate with American Hospital Association Trustee Services to provide issue papers, templates and webinars to support the involvement of healthcare trustees and foundation board members in advancing philanthropy. These resources can also be found on the AHA Trustee website.

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