Excerpted from Public Parks, Private Partners, published by Project for Public Spaces, 2000.
The selection of the board is the single most important step in building the long-term health of a nonprofit parks organization, said Tupper Thomas, president of the Prospect Park Alliance. Why? Every nonprofit has a board of directors, and almost every board we studied plays an all-important oversight role that includes setting policies, fundraising and steering the organization to keep it focused on its mission. But this is far from the whole story. Boards take on diverse additional responsibilities according to the needs of each organization, including advocacy, large and small capital projects, pub- licity, organizing events, design review, planning, development, approving budgets and hiring executive staff members.
In younger, smaller organizations the board often assumes a hands-on role that is very similar to what staff members do in more established organizations. This is also typical of catalysts and assistance providers, since it is rare that these types of organizations ever develop large staffs. Such boards contribute hands-on management skills and a large amount of time, which is devoted to frequent meetings. Likewise, if an organization is starting up, in a transitional phase, or undertaking a major campaign or project, the board is called on to become more active. This implies that a new organization that has policies to set, money to raise, and little or no staff for day-to-day tasks will put a considerable burden on its board (which may be an argument for evolving an organization and the scope of its responsibilities slowly). The challenge, then, to a new organization, will often be to compose just the right board to ensure its future viability.
Tupper Thomas offers the following advice, Start out with a powerful board that knows a lot about fundraising. You have to be sure to get some of the more powerful people in the corporate community some strong donors and make sure every member of the board is willing to give money at the highest level each is able to give. Indeed, many board members we interviewed told us that they required every member to contribute something to the organization financially, although not everyone could contribute as much as others. Thomas added that, to get a really credible board, it was necessary for her to convince a few key people who move in influential circles to join, and have them recruit the rest of the board members. Then, adds Thomas, make time for your board to take some extended time together to make decisions about where you want to go. Board retreats, though resented by some, appear to be a key ingredient in strategic planning for many organizations.
As the organizations we studied aged, their boards tended to withdraw to a more advisory role that focused heavily on fundraising, policy direction, and advising only on the largest capital projects. Says Gregory Platt Jr., president of the Maymont Foundation, As our organization has grown, the board has moved from organizational and management issues to policy direction and funding. In such more established organizations, the board tended to be bigger, but met less often, probably because they had long since institutionalized the policy and development issues that occupy so much time during an organization’s formation.
Not surprisingly, the more the board is relied on for managing and executing day-to-day activities (such as small capital projects, advocacy, publicity) the more frequently it tends to meet. For example, the board of the Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy board meets bi-monthly, with some subcommittees meeting every other week to oversee planning and capital improvements. The Louisville example illustrates how recruiting professionals to the board, such as architects, lawyers, historic preservationists, and advertising executives, can enhance the organization’s staff and almost become an adjunct staff.
Having the support and representation of elected officials as part of a nonprofit’s board, plans, and projects was noted as a key factor in enabling many nonprofit organizations to achieve their goals. One nonprofit stated: By having political representation on the steering committee, the partnership has been able to avoid some bureaucratic difficulties.
Boards usually include those people who have the requisite skills, connections, and financial resources to help the nonprofit achieve its mission. They also usually represent local ethnic groups, community associations, and businesses. Most of the organizations we studied stressed the importance of building a board that represents the full diversity of the area so that all viewpoints are accounted for and to build credibility and contacts among various communities. Ex Officio and/or appointed members often represent the parks department, mayor’s office, and city council or affiliate nonprofit groups. These members are important not only because they acknowledge the public sector’s role in the park and help legitimize the nonprofit, but they can also provide information otherwise difficult to get and help garner public sector support for projects. If the mission of an organization changes, the board composition may also change with it so that it can address new needs.
The boards we studied varied in size from five to fifty-two, although the size of a board is not necessarily indicative of the size of the organization’s staff. Larger boards do seem to be more typical of older organizations. Whatever the board size, its effectiveness ultimately depends on a good understanding of its specific role so that its energies complement the organization’s staff and overall needs.
The nonprofit organizations we studied varied in staff size from one staff member to 200. In some cases, parks departments provide some administrative help for activities such as routine mailings, preparing minutes, and setting up meetings. Of the organizations we reviewed, just under half employed between two and ten staff persons. About a third of the organizations were volunteer groups or had one staff person, and the remainder had larger staffing levels.
The size of the organization’s staff depends upon the type of activities it is engaged in as well as the amount of funding it has. Typically, new organizations begin with volunteers or one or two staff members. In some cases, these groups have one full-time professional staff member who works closely with a board of directors.
Staff levels of organizations that work as catalysts tend to be small as well. While some nonprofits are able to afford from one to four full- or part-time professionals on a staff or consultant basis, others rely solely on volunteers. Regardless of having paid or volunteer staff, these groups regularly make use of volunteers.