By Julie Holdaway

Published in the Orange County Register on May 13, 2013

Signing on the dotted line is a powerful tool for nonprofits, something they should require of board members.

For two months I've told a friend that I would join her in a 39-mile walk for breast cancer.

But it wasn't until this weekend, when I actually sent in my registration forms – when I literally signed on the dotted line – that I committed to this very big endeavor.

Signing on the dotted line makes it real. It formalizes the commitment and, to ensure success, it requires me to create a plan.

Writing down our goals and signing on the dotted line is a strategy a lot of nonprofits would find advantageous.

Recently, I sat in on a board-nominating committee for a nonprofit.  As is the norm at too many nonprofits, various names were bandied about without much purpose.

I flabbergasted at least some of the committee members when I continued to focus on the bigger picture: What are the organization's goals? What expertise do we need? Where do we want to be, not next month, but in three to five years? What leadership do we need to become who we want to be? I was told the committee's charge simply was to fill a seat.

Perhaps boards and committees are intimidated by thoughts of tome-like strategic plans or hours f business-speak philosophizing. But a board leadership goal could be as simple as one statement: "In three years, half of the board will represent our young families."

Writing down the goal ensures clarity, shared intent and tangible measurement. It can also make the goal attainable and not intimidating. By identifying the goal to diversify the board in three years, and relying on some attrition, the plan to recruit two board members a year in the targeted demographic for three years would achieve the goal. From lofty to attainable, just by putting it down on paper.

French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery was right: "A goal without a plan is just a wish." Putting it on paper sets us up for success.

Board responsibilities: Signing on the dotted line

Every nonprofit board is required to have written responsibilities. Too many sit in a binder or hard drive and get dusty. Your board should review and refine those responsibilities at least every three years. Reviewing does not just suggest taking a quick read and putting it back. Instead, a true review involves a team to analyze and rewrite the responsibilities of key players in your organization, ensuring that policies and practices explicitly cover fiduciary and governance responsibilities. The post-review structure should create an environment in which the board can advance the organization's mission.

Given the commitment gained from signing on the dotted line, a new trend with nonprofits is to turn the board responsibilities into a contract. Not intended to be legally enforced, the contract increases each board member's intrinsic commitment to his or her responsibilities and what those responsibilities stand for. Like conflict of interest policies, responsibilities should be signed off on annually.

The IRS recognizes the value of signing on the dotted line. In addition to signatures on financials, the IRS requires every nonprofit board to sign off on whistle-blower and conflict of interest policies, as well as on executive compensation.

For our nonprofits, putting goals down on paper and signing on the dotted line makes it real.

P.S. The OneOC website resources section provides sample board-responsibility contracts for free in our Nonprofit Toolkit,

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