National Wildlife Refuge System

Build a Better Board

Building a strong board requires focus, planning and persistence. Avocets at Malheur Refuge, OR,
Credit: Barbara Wheeler
The St. Marks Refuge Association is seeking specific skills for new board members, such as facility with social media and fundraising.
Credit: Steve Hillebrand

“A good board is a victory, not a gift,” according to nonprofit leadership expert Cyril Houle. And victory requires focus, planning and persistence. 


To begin addressing the twin problems of an overworked board that lacks key competencies, the Friends of the Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges, GA/SC, organized a two-day strategic planning retreat. The Friends of Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, TX, revised its bylaws to permit a more flexibly-sized board. The St. Marks Refuge Association, FL, used a NEEF capacity building grant to hire a consultant who specializes in effective board governance.


That consultant’s first recommendation was to make the identification and recruitment of board members a year-round priority. Alyce Lee Stansbury also points out that boards have two primary purposes that should not be fulfilled by the same people: support and governance.  “In its support role, board members act as individuals to raise money, provide skills, bring clout and serve as ambassadors. In its governance role, the board provides oversight and vision.”


Stansbury said the St. Marks Refuge Association is “functioning at the worker bee level and also the 30,000 foot level. They get overwhelmed by their support role and so governance goes to the back burner.”  Association president Betsy Kellenberger says the group is going to seek such specific skills as facility with social media and fundraising as well as people who don’t otherwise volunteer on the refuge.


The San Francisco Bay Wildlife Society has 10 board members, most of whom do not volunteer on the refuge but bring important talents.  The board includes a CPA who is the treasurer; an attorney; a biology professor with expertise in wetlands; a computer support person who installed PayPal on the society’s Web site; and employees from the regional park district, county environmental office and a major corporation. Sue Ten Eyck , the part-time administrator, brings a background in retail.


The Friends of Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges held a two-day strategic planning retreat in part to address the problems of an overworked board that lacks key competencies.
Credit: Friends of Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges


Key Skills and Characteristics
It’s also important to seek diverse characteristics such as age, race, ethnicity, gender and neighborhood as well as talents like public speaking, organizing and asking people for money.  Friends of the Savannah Coastal Wildlife Refuges plans to survey members, leaders of other organizations and non-member refuge volunteers to fill identified skill gaps.


In “A Winning Board: Steps That Bring Out the Best,” First Nonprofit Foundation recommends setting up informational meetings with clergy, real estate agents, human resource directors and even local bloggers or columnists who could suggest people with needed  skills.


Several Friends groups revised their bylaws to allow a range of board members, perhaps 15 to 20. “When the pool of candidates is strong,” says the First Nonprofit Foundation, “you can bring more people on, but you are not forced to bring on people that you know from the start won’t complement your board.” 


Two other recommendations to increase the appeal of being a Friends board member: make sure prospective members know in advance the expected time commitments, volunteer participation and financial contribution, and design meetings that engage the board in important issues. “Focus on the future,” says First Nonprofit Foundation, “not on reports that are all about the past.”

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Last updated: June 17, 2013