Rowing vs. Steering: Leveraging the Skills of Your Nonprofit Board

Rowing vs. Steering: Leveraging the Skills of Your Nonprofit Board

For nonprofits to be successful and sustainable, all members of the organization or team must move in the right direction — together. If you think of a nonprofit in the context of a rowing team, or crew, you can get a clear picture of how important each team member’s role is, whether it is “steering” or guiding the direction of the organization or “rowing” moving the organization along with the direction provided.

So, where do nonprofit boards fit in this metaphor?

On one hand, nonprofit board members are needed to “row” — aka support the organization’s day-to-day operations. After all, nonprofits rely on successful operations and fundraising to achieve their mission. And it’s no secret that staffing can often be slim in the nonprofit world, so having all the help you can get is beneficial to getting the job done.

On the other hand, nonprofit board leadership is needed to “steer” — aka set the strategic direction for the organization. Boards are critical in thinking about and planning the organization’s long-term health and sustainability. In this instance, most of the day-to-day operations are left to staff members.

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer. It depends on the organization’s specific needs and what will help you best achieve your mission. Boards need to balance these two responsibilities, leveraging their individual skills, to help the organization succeed.

The Responsibilities Within Nonprofit Organizations

The rowing and steering metaphor is often used to describe the relationship between a nonprofit board and the executive team. The boards are usually responsible for steering the ship, while the executive team and program managers are responsible for rowing the organization forward.

In other words, the board sets the direction for the organization while the executive team implements that vision.

However, this analogy can also help understand the different responsibilities of each group. Just as a rowing team needs both rowers and a steersman, a nonprofit organization needs both a board of directors and an executive team to function effectively.

Board Member

In most cases, board members are the governing body of a nonprofit organization. This means they are responsible for creating and adhering to the organization’s bylaws and policies, setting its strategic direction and overseeing business affairs (e.g., legal and fiduciary duties and assessing the organization’s financial condition).

They also ensure that the organization’s activities remain focused on the nonprofit’s mission. In addition, the board will oversee the executive team and ensure it functions effectively.

The Executive Team

Usually led by an executive director or chief executive officer, the executive team is responsible for day-to-day operations and implementing the strategic plan, as set by the board. These nonprofit leaders also work with the board to set organizational priorities and develop policies.

Both the board and executive team play vital roles in ensuring that a nonprofit organization runs smoothly. By working together, they can ensure that the organization achieves its goals and positively impacts the community.

Leveraging Board Member Skills to Provide Guidance to Nonprofits

One of the nonprofit board’s most important roles is to guide the executive team. This means that the board’s first priority is to set the organization’s strategic direction and ensure that it remains aligned with its mission.

Nonprofit leaders can leverage the individual skills of each board member to provide critical guidance and support to the executive team in areas such as fundraising, leadership and management, and even partnership development, allowing the executive team to effectively carry out their responsibilities and fill gaps in current staffing.

For example, board members with specific skills in fundraising might work on developing a fundraising strategy and also participate in soliciting funds from potential donors. In this instance, board members are used to both set the fundraising goals (steering) and facilitate some of the activities necessary to achieve that goal (rowing).

In any case, the more the executive team knows about their current gaps and board members’ skills and capacity, the better equipped they are to tap into those specific skills when needed.

The Difference Between Rowing and Steering in the Nonprofit Sector

Especially in organizations with limited staffing, it can be challenging to separate the rowing from the steering.

While board members may sometimes get involved in fundraising or managing daily operations, nonprofit boards and executive leadership can work collaboratively to differentiate between their responsibilities and ensure they use their knowledge, skills, and expertise to move the organization forward. Creating a shared understanding of the organizational needs and gaps, along with a joint plan to address them, allows the board and executive team to focus on their responsibilities, prevents internal and external confusion about who is tackling what activities, and ensures that the organization can achieve its goals.

Keep Your Board Members Informed

As a nonprofit leader, your role is to ensure that your board members are effective and meeting their responsibilities. One way to do this is to provide training for current and new board members on the roles and responsibilities of nonprofit boards. This will help them to understand their role in the organization and how they can best support the executive team.

Additionally, you should update your board members regularly in board meetings on the organization’s progress and ensure that they are aware of any changes in the strategic direction. Keeping board members abreast of activities the team is doing helps them focus more on “steering” and engage in “rowing” when they are most needed.

Another way to ensure that your board members are successful is to provide regular feedback. You can do this through board evaluations or by having regular conversations about their performance. This feedback will allow them to be a great board member, keep your organization’s mission at the forefront, and carry your organization’s culture into the board room.

Set Your Organization Up for Success

The bottom line is that it is critical to choose the right board and team members to row and steer an organization towards its goal. Doing so will set your organization up for success and move you closer to achieving your overall mission.

Does your organization need some help balancing out your business structure? Schedule a free consultation with our team today to get started.

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