It is a well-known fact that one of the most important factors in the health and impact of any nonprofit organization is the health and strength of an active board.
For that reason, board development is a top priority at VEJ.
"The board is crucial and that is especially true at VEJ," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "A founder normally does the work of about ten people. So, when a founder retires as Patty Gillis did in 2017, you have to find ten people to take her place. That's where building a board and professional staff comes in."
Irwin believes that board development may be VEJ's most important accomplishment over the last year.
"One year ago, we were down to three board members and all three of them had been on the board for seven years or more at that point," said Irwin. "Obviously, it's hard to have a diverse board with a lot of depth and range when it is that small. You need a constant flow of new board members to keep accountability strong and thinking fresh."
Irwin and board president Sister Janet Stankowski (who co-founded VEJ with Patty Gillis in 2002) worked hard to recruit and orient new board members over the last year.
"Board composition, recruitment, and training is something that few nonprofits actually do well," said Irwin. "Some organizations go for the 'big names' or people they think will bring them big bucks. Some organizations go for 'warm bodies' to just fill seats. Neither one of those approaches work well for a small nonprofit like VEJ. We need people with passion and skill who are ready to go to work to build something for the future."
Irwin said that when looking for new board members, VEJ focused on depth of board and nonprofit management experience and diversity of backgrounds.
"VEJ is going through a major change from a founder-based organization to a mission-based organization run by professionals under a board's guidance," said Irwin. "That makes board composition critical. We need people who understand how to build an effective board and run an effective nonprofit organization. Equally important is representation from the diverse communities we serve. If it seems hard, it is! But it's coming together now and picking up steam."
Since June 2018, VEJ's board has grown by seven members. As of today, VEJ's board is:
Irwin said one of his favorite things about VEJ's board is how many of its new members are putting their years of board experience elsewhere to work for VEJ.
"A year ago, we were on the front end of the 'forming' phase," said Irwin. "We actually needed to form a board. This year, we're well into a 'norming' phase. That is, we're seeing new board members use their experience to design a board culture and board habits that will grow VEJ's capacity to accomplish its mission. This is really exciting because it means VEJ is about to turn a corner and enter a growth phase."
What comes next?
Irwin said that good boards never stop cultivating and recruiting new members.
"As long as you're being intentional about who you're bringing on board and you're honoring your term limit plan, there is no cut-off number," said Irwin. "If you don't have a pipeline of future board candidates and you're not constantly bringing a few of them up to the board each year, you're already backsliding. A good, healthy board is a dynamic board. It's always changing, always getting stronger."
Irwin said he sees VEJ's board adopting new bylaws, electing new officers, and getting new committees up and running over the rest of 2019.
From there, big opportunities await.
"The biggest opportunity for any board--including VEJ's board--is grappling with questions of missional and strategic importance and imagining the possibilities for the future," said Irwin. "When a board is healthy and strong and when it is handling its 'day to day business' well, it opens up a lot of space to take on the 'fun' stuff: Exploring the world, imagining the future, working with the professionals on the staff to lay out a strategy for growth and impact."