Nonprofit founder Jennifer Sills on cultivating better board engagement

Surfboard team

Published on Feb 16, 2024

When Jennifer Sills first founded the CSNK2A1 Foundation, she wanted to hit the ground running. So she built a board designed to maximize the organization’s chances of success and got to work. But after three years of rapid growth (and lots of early success!), she realized it was time to take a step back and figure out how they could do things better and smarter.

We sat down with Jennifer to learn how she leveraged her board to launch a nonprofit dedicated to finding a cure for Okur-Chung Neurodevelopmental Syndrome—a rare genetic disorder caused by a mutation in the CSNK2A1 gene—and what they’re doing to turn their early wins into a longterm vision for success.

Here are our top takeaways from our conversation with Jennifer:

1. Be strategic about how you build your board

When you’re starting a nonprofit, there’s an endless list of things to consider. What’s your name going to be? Who will be your trusted advisors? And what’s your board going to look like?

While many nonprofits (especially in the rare disease space) turn to parents to fill their early board roles, Jennifer knew that recruiting for specific skillsets was the best way they could maximize their chance of success.

She started by creating a wishlist outlining the types of expertise they would need—everything from legal expertise and experience in the VC healthcare space to finance, fundraising, and operational expertise made the list. From there, they reached out to people in their network and started recruiting.

This approach made sure the organization was set up for success from day one and made it possible for them to grow quickly and strategically.

2. Tap into your board members’ individual strengths

While you may have recruited board members for a specific skillset, if you really want to keep them engaged, you have to figure out what their personal motivations are. What are they really interested in? What are they excited about? Maybe you have a board member who, on paper, is good at accounting but loves getting involved in community outreach. Or someone who’s an expert in marketing, but loves fundraising. Whatever it is, find out what each person’s individual strengths are and tap into them.

3. Don’t be afraid to take a step back

Anyone who’s founded an organization knows it’s easy to get lost in the day to day. You become so focused on trying to get things done, that you never really pause and reflect on how you’re working.

It wasn’t until the three-and-a-half-year mark (when they were getting ready to hire their first full-time employee) that Jennifer realized they weren’t really working to the best of their ability. Important information was only documented in random email threads and they hadn’t established processes to help keep things moving smoothly.

Jennifer saw the accumulation of these little pain points as a sign that they needed to take a step back and figure out how to do things better and smarter, especially when it came to their board. They started researching board management platforms (which led them to Surfboard!) and took the time to professionalize their nonprofit’s board so they knew they were utilizing the board to the best of their ability.

4. Investing in your board is worth it

Your board will only work as hard as they think you expect them to. And disorganized, disjointed board management sends the message that you don’t expect much.

Using a board management tool helped the CSNK2A1 Foundation get organized which, in turn, made it easier to keep their board members engaged. They started delegating tasks, asking their board for help, and keeping their board engaged on an ongoing basis.

While it can be scary to spend money or carve out time, investing in your board is worth it to help make your goals come to fruition faster.

5. You have to make time for longterm succession planning

Organizations in the rare disease space are often guilty of thinking they’ll start an organization, find a cure, then close their doors. But in reality, these organizations are going to be around much longer than their founders ever anticipated. Part of achieving your mission is thinking about your longterm plans, and taking the time to get organized now so you’re set up for success down the road. Without planning, there’s no opportunity for growth.

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