When it comes to setting up an organisation, especially a not-for-profit (known in Nigeria here as Incorporated Trustees), getting the board right is one of the best things you can do for your organisation. It was not until I attended the Social Sector Management course of the Enterprise Development Centre, Pan Atlantic University that I realised I had gone about setting up my board the wrong way. The mistake I made was made much more glaring when I attended the LEAP’s Social Innovators Programme (SIP) and got to learn much more. I hope you will learn from my mistakes, experience and new knowledge.
Making your NGO work is not just about you having passion and getting grants, your board plays a fiduciary role and you must have a solid board if you are going to get the benefits of that role. Those benefits abound, trust me, in the two months or so of having a strong board, my organisation has moved forward by at least 20%. I will now highlight some things you should take into account in order to make your board work.
- Do not be in a rush: When I registered Aspilos Foundation, I was in such a rush as someone had told me I could get some computers donated to us by an international agency but that I had to be registered first. So I went into it in a rush, it did not help that CAC did not have adequate information and it also did not help that the lawyer I hired did not explain things well to me. Take your time and learn about the process and do things right the first time so you do not have to overhaul like I did. By the way, we never did get the computers.
- Have the right people: Do not pick just anyone to be on your board. Avoid picking your friends and family members except you are setting it up together. You should have the following people on your board:
- A legal expert: This person should have good knowledge of the law. It does not have to be specifically in corporate law but should know enough to advise you during board meetings before you take some decisions.
- A financial management expert: You need to have someone who can look over your finances and make recommendations or design policies that will help the bottom line of the organisation. We might not be for profit but we are definitely not for loss.
- A business development expert: A not-for-profit organisation is still a business. Forget the semantics. It is just a business that does not share profit. We make the mistake of not handling our NGOs as the businesses that they are. Get people who have demonstrated knowledge of how to grow a business and increase its bottom line. For me, I looked for people who had started their organisations small, had scaled up and were doing well. We have some new projects coming up which are strictly for income generation and the idea was proposed by the board.
- A subject matter expert: Whatever area your organisation is working in, have someone who has expertise in it. We work in two thematic areas and have two target populations: we work in governance with a focus on young people and we work in education for economic empowerment with a focus on young women. I used a two birds with one stone approach here. The legal person on my board has subject matter expertise when it comes to empowerment of women and girls, we have someone else who has international development expertise combined with expertise in business development and in one of our core tools which is technology. The last subject matter expert has international development expertise as well as expertise specific to education, governance and young people. Examine your thematic areas and target beneficiaries and use that to decide who your subject matter expert(s) should be.
- A PR/branding expert: You want your organisation to look good all the time so you need to have someone who knows how to brand an organisation and can handle public relations. For Aspilos, I looked for someone who had grown her business and had by herself painted a good image for the business. So she doubles as a business development expert as well as a branding person.
- Have an odd number board: This is mainly for voting purposes. You do not want a case where you are voting to take a decision and then you have a tie. We have seven (7) Board members.
- Get people who can pull your ears when you are going wrong: There is no one on my board that if they call me, I won’t answer. Everyone on that board can tell me where I am going wrong. Do not pick people that do not have any form of influence over you. I remember the first meeting we had, I was so nervous and was shaking even though I knew and had a relationship with all but one of them personally beforehand. They are people I respect a lot so I had to put on a good performance if not the best. Thankfully, they were understanding and helped boost my morale that day. So get people that you have no problem listening to.
- Do not go with only people you have a personal relationship with: It is okay to have known all your board members personally before they join your board but it is not a must. Look out for skills and passion first. You can build the relationship in the process of getting them to join the board and when they eventually do. The first meeting I had with my board was the first time ever that I met one of them physically. Before then we had been communicating via phone, email etc. I had needed one last person to join the board and that was the financial management expert and it had to be male because we already had 4 women and just 2 men. So I talked to some people whose opinion I respect and asked for recommendations and he was recommended. I reached out to him and that was how we began. I had never heard about him before then. Ndidi Nwuneli, founder of LEAP Africa once talked about how she went to a conference, met a woman there and decided to have her on the LEAP board and she followed up with her from there. She did not know her before she went for that conference, if I remember right.
- Do not look for high profile people: A number of us make the mistakes of looking for rich and popular people because we think they will attract funding to our organisations or will support us financially. That is not always true. Stop thinking that way. If your organisation has grown to a point where its credibility, impact and sustainability is not a question, it will attract funds on its own. Having high profile people then only becomes a bonus. It is not a bad thing to have high profile folks on your board but ensure that they have the skills you need and the time to work with you. Also ensure that they are people with clean slates.
- Do not be afraid to let your board members go: This is for those like me who set up their board the wrong way or have a non-functional board. Do not be afraid or slow to let the people go. One thing you should not do is to burn bridges! Even if the board member was a toxic person, you try to sever the relationship with the person without burning bridges. The point I am making here is that you should not hold on to people if they are not doing your organisation any good. My board members, though good, smart and solid people, were not what the organisation needed at the time. I reached out to them and informed them that I would be taking them off the board.
- Set up committees: For Aspilos, our board has 4 committees: internal affairs (finance, HR, compliance etc), external affairs (branding, partnerships, fundraising etc), programmes and strategy development, and audit. For Aspilos, each board member is on 2 committee and each committee (except the audit) has a task which has a clear deadline. I am still working on getting the committees to deliver seeing we are still new.
- Do not be the Chair of your board: With my first board, I was the chair. This is not best practice and is not good for the image of your organisation. It also has ramifications on your remuneration from the organisation.
- Have a tenure: Your board members are not life members, you as the founder may be a life member though. Decide how many years the members stay on for. I would advise that the tenure should be as long as the tenure for your strategic plan. If your strategic plan is for three years, the board tenure should be the same too so that you bring in people as needed for each stage of your organisation. Note however that you should not change everyone at once, have one or two people who will stay on for an extra year or two or even longer so that you do not always have a brand new board. That does not work well for continuity.
- Finally, ensure your board members have a passion for or an interest in what the organisation does. EVERYONE on your board should the reason for and the value in what the organisation is all about. It will be an added bonus if they have a passion for you as a person too i.e if they are particular about your growth and development.
That is my bit on making your board work. Please feel free to ask your questions, make comments and suggestions. As far as it helps us all grow, they are welcome. All the best with your organisations and with making Nigeria, Africa and the world at large a better place for everyone.
Simi Olusola is a LEAP Africa 2016 SIP Fellow. Follow Simi on Twitter @SimiOlusola.