Achieving Effective Board Governance
Each legal aid organization functions under the leadership of a nonprofit board of directors, the governing body of the organization. Each organization's board of directors is established based on its bylaws, and those who are elected jointly govern the organization. Board members generally see themselves as ambassadors of their organizations and work together to accomplish the organization's mission.
The critical responsibilities of a legal aid board of directors are to:
- Establish and maintain the organization's mission and vision
- Provide effective oversight of the organization's fiscal operations and resources
- Exercise diligence in policy development and implementation
- Develop resources sufficient to sustain the organization's mission and goals
- Ensure the organization has a strong leadership and management team to carry out the organization's vision
- Meet regularly to receive reports and information with regard to the organization's progress and status of operations
Grantees should review requirements for the composition and membership of boards defined by the Legal Services Corporation Act and the LSC Regulations, 45 CFR Part 1607. (Related: See the Questions and Answers about the January 2019 Changes to the Governing Bodies Rule page.) Legal aid organizations should also review the LSC Performance Criteria, specifically Performance Area Four, which offers the basis for evaluation of board governance.
View the resources below for additional general board development and operational guidance for nonprofit organizations and governing bodies:
- BoardSource offers online resources, training, and consulting to board of directors, including "Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards."
- The National Council of Nonprofits is dedicated to supporting charitable nonprofit organizations and offers online resources for boards and governance with a focus on fiscal sustainability.
- The Bridgespan Group collaborates with social sector leaders to help scale impact and advance philanthropic effectiveness.
In April 2017, LSC hosted a webinar that explained the board composition requirements of LSC Regulation, 45 CFR Part 1607.3, and provided strategies for effective recruitment and retention of attorney and client board members. In particular, the webinar covered:
- How LSC interprets and monitors its regulation on governing body composition so that LSC grantees can achieve and preserve compliance
- Effective strategies to improve grantees’ success in recruiting candidates for board membership by examining processes for recruitment; who is responsible for recruitment; characteristics a board should look for in a candidate; and where to look for new candidates
- Effective strategies to improve grantees’ success in retaining high-quality board members
View the PowerPoint slides from the webinar here.
Given the transient nature of a legal aid organization’s board of directors, and that at any moment there may be multiple skill or personnel holes to fill, strengthening the board as much as possible and setting it up for success is very important.
The Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas (LANWT) is one such organization that deals with the usual frequent changes to its board, but it takes active steps to identify any board-related weaknesses or issues and make the duties and responsibilities of the board as streamlined as possible.
While LANWT has long had a committee for the selection, nomination, training, care, and development of its board of directors, that committee took a step forward and became more robust in 2016. (The committee consisted of four to five of the 27 total board members.) One of the areas it decided to focus on in particular was the recruitment of new board members.
How the Legal Aid Society of San Diego has a Thriving Client Board Member Committee, and How They Sustain It
As a longstanding rule, LSC’s grantees are required to have one-third of their boards of directors be composed of eligible client members. The Legal Aid Society of San Diego (LASSD) is compliant with this regulation, however, the program is innovative in the engagement of its client board members.
For more than 40 years, LASSD’s client members have been consistently engaged, representing the organization at community events and helping out with outreach, among other things. But about 15 years ago, the client board members decided they wanted their own meeting, with a separate agenda. This was approved. LASSD’s client committee meeting happens during the third week of every month, a week before the full board meeting.
The meetings themselves—well-attended by the client board members—can be described in one word: robust.
Election Process: Members of the Legal Aid of West Virginia’s Board of Directors Compete for Seats on the Board
Formed as a result of a merger in 2002, Legal Aid of West Virginia (LAWV) is a statewide legal services program serving 55 counties. The program is governed by a 23-member board. The majority of LAWV’s attorney board members are selected to serve on the board by an electoral process held by their local bar associations.
Each year, LAWV holds an election to fill the vacant seats on its board. The process kicks off in March, when letters are mailed to state bar members in the regions with available seats to solicit nominations. Any member of the West Virginia State Bar in that region can nominate attorneys for the board.
After the deadline for nominations passes, LAWV reviews the nominees; checks that they are licensed, have active bar status, and live in the region; calls to confirm their interest in the board; and offers them information about legal aid and board services. (As LAWV has observed, often times people nominate themselves, which speaks to the level of interest in the board and only makes the election more competitive.)
When the nominees have been contacted, a paper ballot is mailed to the members in the region who nominated them. Such an intimate, personalized process is able to work because of the state’s demographics—there are fewer than 6,000 members of the West Virginia State Bar.
Following the results of the election, LAWV notifies the successful and unsuccessful candidates, organizes a board orientation, and seats the new members at the board’s annual meeting. The meeting is typically held in mid-May, which signals the end of the two-and-a-half-month election process.
Overall, the results of the process have been overwhelmingly positive: everyone is committed and involved throughout the entire process, the bar feels that it has an opportunity to participate, and some of the people who weren’t elected become active, engaged volunteers for the program. Also, while West Virginia’s 10 regions and State Bar are relatively small in size compared to other states, the election process remains competitive; rarely does someone run unopposed—it’s almost always a contested election.
Board members, as a whole and as individual members, should be committed to the organization and its mission. By offering orientation and continuing training, legal aid organizations can ensure that board members understand their role, potential conflicts of interest, fiscal responsibilities, and other responsibilities outlined in Performance Area Four of the LSC Performance Criteria. Training should include topics like:
- How to read and understand financial, statistical, and other reports
- An understanding of the substantive laws that affect clients
- Legislative updates on developments impacting clients and client services
- Leadership capacities
Legal Services NYC 2008 Finance Presentation
In 2008, Legal Services NYC delivered a finance training presentation to its board. Divided into two subsections, the presentation explained the criteria used to evaluate unit budget proposals and the three-step process used to review and approve the budget. The presentation served as part of a larger board orientation series.
Wisconsin Judicare 2010 Resource Development Training
Wisconsin Judicare conducted a board member training that incorporated resource development into the strategic planning process. The training included an overview of current resources, suggestions for new resources, and a list of issues to be discussed in strategic planning.
Key topics also included:
- The board's role in development
- Present sources of income
- Other sources of income available
- Ways to use resources to make the most impact
As part of a series of board member trainings, other trainings have addressed budgeting and oversight, cultural competence, developments in legal services delivery, and issues facing providers.
Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma 2007 Financial Training
Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma developed a board member financial training to explain accountability and basic financial concepts. The training provided a broad overview of the board's involvement in finances with a particular emphasis on:
- Responsibility for financials
- Accounting concepts
- Financial position
- Support and expense
- Net assets
- Financial tools
Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma also offered a modified version of the financial training designed for executive directors.
Legal Services NYC 2012 'Board Member Handbook'
In order to provide new board members with background information on the organization, Legal Services NYC developed a "Board Member Handbook."
The handbook provided a comprehensive view of Legal Services NYC's mission, history, and structure, including information on:
- The board's leadership role and responsibilities
- Board officers' leadership role and responsibilities
- Board committees
- Board meeting organization and management
- Board culture and orientation
Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut 2016 'Board of Directors Handbook'
Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut's "Board of Directors Handbook" provides an overview of the bylaws that govern the board of directors. It also outlines the work rules in place for Connecticut's staff.