If you have ever served as a board member to a nonprofit organization, you probably know the rewards, as well as the frustrations that come with the territory. And if you are part of the management of a nonprofit organization, you too know the benefits, as well as the frustrations, of working with your board. According to Deborah Alvarez-Rodriguez, who wrote the forward to Kay Sprinkel Grace’s The Ultimate Board Member’s Book, “…a well-functioning board can propel an organization forward, while a misaligned group, unclear about its role and purpose, can quickly shift the organization’s focus from achieving its mission to micromanaging personalities and wasting precious resources.”
So what does it take to be a good board member?
Having been the accountant/auditor, as well as a board member for many nonprofit organizations, I’ve observed a few do’s and don’ts of board membership. While some of the suggestions I will share in this short article are my own, many are the result of having read and put to use the suggestions found in The Ultimate Board Member’s Book, a guide to understanding the responsibilities of a good board member.
Some of the more basic do’s of the job include: attending all meetings, reading any advance materials provided, keeping sensitive issues confidential, respecting the job of management and other staff members, ensuring that the organization adheres to its bylaws and policies with regard to legal and financial issues (which includes learning how to read, at least on a basic level, the financial statements presented), and understanding and keeping the organization on task with its mission and vision. Some of the basic don’ts of the job include: not crossing the boundaries between board and staff by trying to micromanage the activities of the organization, not abusing the position by insisting on special privileges with the organization or its events, not engaging in business or personal situations with potential conflicts of interest, and maintaining the special relationship between the board and management by not going around the CEO or executive director to staff members.
Beyond the basic do’s and don’ts, there are other steps board members can take to enhance their personal experience and organizational impact. Think carefully about serving on a board whose mission you are not passionate about. While there may be business reasons for serving on a particular board, or a sense of pride at being asked to serve on a prestigious board, if you are not passionate about the values and mission of the organization, you are not likely to be personally satisfied by your position, and worse yet, you are unlikely to put forth your time and talent to propel the organization forward. Understand that you are not there to take up a seat on the board. You are there to add to the organization’s reach and impact through your connections, philanthropy and talent.
There are also steps a board can and should take as a group to educate, support, and empower its board members. The author of The Ultimate Board Member’s Book suggests several very specific ways to help board members understand and focus on why the organization does what it does, which in turn will provide board members the information they need to both articulate and excite others about the mission of the organization. Some examples include planning site tours and meetings with those who have benefitted from the organization’s activities; holding an annual “Mission Immersion Day,” where board members spend a day or a half day meeting people and visiting programs; including a “Mission Moment,” a 5 to 10 minute time slot in the middle of each and every board meeting to hear from a grateful patient, transformed client, or other individual who shares what you have done for them or others; and replacing and rotating board members periodically to offset any decline in energy by adding curiosity and excitement. In addition, she suggests that board members continually remind themselves to “keep the mission fresh by looking out the windows.” In other words, see how the world is changing and how the mission might need to change and adapt to remain current.
Any discussion of the qualities of a good board member must also include a reminder that there are important legal, fiduciary, and oversight responsibilities that come with the position. Board members act as trustees of the public’s money. Donors and the community rely on board members to insure that the organization is wisely and prudently utilizing those funds. In order to carry out these duties, good board members ask probing and thoughtful questions, and good management willingly provides answers and is transparent about all aspects of the organization’s operations.
Remember, a passionate board member is a good board member who willingly shares contacts, expertise and finances appropriately, and believes in the mission, inspires others, and is committed to the cause and its success.