How do boards of directors influence nonprofit capacity?

By Brett Mayfield


Nonprofit boards are a governing body of individuals responsible for the organizations’ affairs and conduct (Herman & Renz, 2000). While board members play a vital role in nonprofit management, little research exists about these individuals’ active roles in collaboration with other organizations. With little discussion about what board members bring to the table, leaders may not know what is valuable to look for in new members or even what management style to use with their existing board. At NNSI, we explored this problem in a study. 

Using an online survey of 636 organizations, researchers Jennifer Ihm and Michelle Shumate explored how a board’s social capital and human capital impact nonprofit collaboration within and across the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits collaborate with three types of organizations: other nonprofits, corporations, and governmental organizations. Partnerships like these help nonprofits reduce costs and the competition for resources through shared goals. Moreover, Ihm and Shumate recognized that nonprofits collaborate both integratively and informally. Similarly, they decided to study nonprofit-corporate and nonprofit-governmental collaborations by integrative relationships rather than philanthropic or contractual partnerships. In the end, recognizing different nonprofit collaboration types is crucial because each type of partner has different objectives––meaning different decisions and different roles from nonprofit boards.

The researchers first looked at board social capital. This factor is essentially board members’ connections to other organizations (Barroso-Casto, Villegas-Periñan, & Casillas-Bueno, 2015). Ihm and Shumate hypothesized that higher board social capital would be associated with initiating and maintaining nonprofit collaboration. Ultimately, they were right: board members with more significant social capital seem to have better access to insider information and broader knowledge about future partners through their links with other organizations. Additionally, social capital gives board members the upper hand in securing government funding and building partnerships in nonprofit-government collaboration. They also found that social capital makes organizations seem more legitimate in the field and, in the end, makes a nonprofit a more attractive interorganizational partner.

Ihm and Shumate then examined board human capital, which refers to an “individual’s set of knowledge and skills, which are typically developed through investments in education, training, and various experiences” (Kor & Sundaramurthy, 2009, p. 982). While the team believed that board human capital would follow a similar trend as board social capital, their findings were more complicated than that. First, it was unrelated to within-sector collaboration. Second, board human capital was negatively related to business-nonprofit collaboration. These partnerships may not necessarily form from boards with high human capital. Third, the relationship was positive when board social capital was high for government-nonprofit collaboration and was negative when social capital levels were low. 

While this study does not describe organizations with revenues under $100,000 or international organizations, Ihm and Shumate’s research yields a fresh perspective on the board’s role in nonprofit collaboration with other organizations. By comparing the three types of nonprofit collaboration, this work suggests that partnership leaders could improve their collaboration profile by inviting board members with different organizational affiliations to join their board. In the end, the social connections––sometimes combined with the organizational skills––of board members may be essential to nonprofit collaboration. By carefully considering the diversity of individual board members’ knowledge and networks, nonprofit leaders can use this research to make effective and efficient management decisions.


Want to learn more? 


You can read more about the foundations of this research in sources included in the full article (below), three of which are included in this post:


Barroso-Castro, C., Villegas-Periñan, M., & Casillas-Bueno, J. C. (2015). How boards’ internal and external social capital interact to affect firm performance. Strategic Organization,14(1), 6–31. 

Herman, R. D., & Renz, D. O. (2000). Board practices of especially effective and less effective local nonprofit organizations.The American Review of Public Administration, 30(2), 146–160.

Kor, Y. Y., & Sundaramurthy, C. (2009). Experience-based human capital and social capital of outside directors. Journal of Management,35(4), 981–1006. 


Check out the full research article here: 

Ihm J, Shumate M. How does a board of directors influence within-and cross-sector nonprofit collaboration? Nonprofit Management and Leadership. 2019;29:473–490.