Serving on a nonprofit board can be one of your most rewarding experiences working at a nonprofit. It can also be among the most confusing and difficult.
Here are five practices to keep in mind to make for your most effective board service:
- Remember you represent your organization.
- Understand how to run a nonprofit organization.
- Know the importance of the board recruitment committee.
- Manage your board members like board members.
- Read about your mission.
Running a successful, productive board requires continually listening to your board members, learning about your organization, and developing your skills. This means effective board management is not accomplished overnight, but instead needs regular upkeep and dedication to maintain. Let’s get started!
1. Remember that you represent your organization.
Board members, especially the board chair, hold the organization in trust for the public good.
Along with your fiduciary responsibilities and commitment to your mission, it is essential that you act in a manner that acknowledges that your nonprofit board operates its organization for the public good.
In practice, this means operating your nonprofit organization transparently and inclusively. Your board needs a diverse membership that represents multiple constituencies. You need to set policies that encourage anyone who will benefit from your mission to take part in it. You and your board colleagues need to put the needs of your mission’s recipients first. It means subsuming your own need for recognition and benefit from your position of board service.
Therefore, manage in a way that makes it clear that your board service is not about you, but the mission.
It’s easy to get caught up in the honor of nonprofit board service and forget about the reason you’re there: to serve the mission. This can express itself in the biggest issues and the smallest details.
The big stuff is pretty obvious. You make decisions on hiring an executive director or weigh in on the pricing of a feature service. But it’s the small details that can show the most.
Where are board meetings held? Are they in spaces that reflect the mission, or isolated from those you serve? What kind of food is served around board meetings? Is it high-end fare, or the same that you would offer to your mission recipients? Does the board grapple with challenging questions related to your mission, or is it pitched softballs that it’s expected to rubber-stamp?
A board member may never avoid recognition for their service. But a great board member will leverage that recognition for the good of the people their mission serves, not for their own self-promotion.
This is why you must be a public and visible advocate for your mission.
Too often board members are shy about their board service. True, they don’t use their board service to promote themselves. That’s good. But they also never let anyone know that they’re on a board. That’s a problem.
It is every board member’s responsibility to leverage the connections and resources they have at hand to serve their nonprofit and, ultimately, the people their nonprofit serves. That’s impossible if nobody knows they’re even on the board.
This doesn’t mean a board member should pressure their friends, family, and colleagues to join the mission by giving or volunteering. It means speaking about what you do in a way that puts the focus on your service to the mission, not yourself. And you’d be surprised at how finding out that you are on the board will get someone else’s brain thinking about how they can help.
2. Understand how to run a nonprofit organization.
Manage so that it's clear you understand the differences between business, nonprofit, and government.
While businesses, governments, and nonprofits have many organizational and infrastructural similarities, their purposes are vastly different. Governments provide services that benefit the common good, such as roads and police. Business exists to make a profit by providing goods and services that people elect to buy for their individual or corporate wants and needs. Nonprofits are mission-focused, filling in where business and government can’t or won’t provide their products or services, usually to specific groups or people who have a common interest or condition.
Nonprofits will often provide their services either free or at a discount to their constituents. This means that a lot of nonprofit services that fulfill their mission are money losers, not profit centers. To make up for these losses, nonprofits seek money from people who are not beneficiaries of their services, whether that’s through the nonprofit owning businesses, seeking charitable donations, obtaining government grants, or other means.
None of this is an excuse for poor “business practices,” such as sloppy bookkeeping, nonexistent marketing, or incompetent management. A board needs to execute its responsibilities as a mission-focused organization, whose first concern is for the people it serves.
3. Know the importance of the board recruitment committee.
Consider that the most important committee isn’t the development or executive committee.
It’s easy to think that the most important committee on the board is the executive committee, the committee in charge of revenue, or the committee that monitors finances. No doubt, excellence in these areas makes for a well-run nonprofit.
But no, the most important committee is the one that probably gets the least attention: the board recruitment committee. In fact, that’s a poor name for it. It should be called something like “The Committee on the Board.”
Unfortunately, most board recruitment committees, if they exist at all, are episodically organized before the next board election with just weeks of preparation. Many boards also go into the recruitment process with only a vague idea about the requirements of board membership beyond some specific gap to fill or the universal order to find “someone who can give.”
This loses so much.
Instead, organize a permanent committee on the board charged with the ongoing responsibility to identify potential board members. This committee will also need to take on the extremely important responsibility of overseeing the training, monitoring, and evaluation of board member performance.
Of course, identifying potential board members before the election makes a lot of sense. Often, this ensures your board avoids accidentally bringing in members who later become problematic because you never vetted their interest in your mission or ability to help you.
But this isn’t all their fault. Without a training program in place for board members, or standards for evaluation, how can a board member tell if they’re doing a good job? Chances are, underperforming board members are as disappointed as you are. An ongoing recruitment and training program helps them and you, while ultimately putting the right people in place to best serve your mission.
4. Manage your board members like board members.
You will need to manage your board members like board members, not members of your staff. Additionally, you’ll also need your staff to respect the board.
Staff and boards have two very distinct jobs. Boards set policy and make strategic decisions. Staff implement policy and make tactical decisions. They meet in the board chair-executive director interactions.
Even if you have a “working board” in an all-volunteer organization, it’s still important to know when you are a policy-making body and when you’re in the trenches pursuing your mission.
It’s very easy to confuse the two and blur the lines.
Consider this: you are a board member and an icon to the volunteers and staff of your nonprofit. When something goes wrong, a lot of staff or volunteers will say, “Does the board know about this?” and run to you. It also means when you have a great idea, your first instinct can be to run to a staff member and let them know.
Avoid doing this, and don’t encourage it.
Of course, you want to feel like anyone can come to you. The problem is that it's easy to get dragged into the minutiae of day-to-day operations. That’s not your job. It’s the job of the executive director. You should make clear that only the most serious issues should come directly from the staff—like whistleblower complaints—and even with those, you need a process to handle them.
This works in reverse, too. While it may seem more efficient to just call up a staff member and tell them your idea, don’t. Your job is to communicate your idea to the board chair and/or executive director, who then sends it to the staff. Even worse, since you are a board member, the staff member will feel pressure to make your idea a priority, often above the executive director’s given priorities. For the staff member, that can be confusing at best and job threatening at worst. While the staff member is working on your idea, they could be ignoring what they’re getting paid to do, resulting in a low performance rating.
Plus, unless you’re an expert on your nonprofit’s mission, your idea could be a bad idea. Don’t damage your mission with things that “make sense” but may not be right. You’ve hired professionals to know the difference. Listen to them.
And if you’re worried about whether staff are doing their job, consider a formal “trust but verify” process. You hire a staff to do mission work. You need to trust them. But you also need to verify they are doing the work. There’s a fine line between micromanaging and ignorance.
5. Read about your mission.
Read about your mission, your mission recipients, and, most important, read the board reports!
Board service doesn’t start and end with board meetings. Akin to teaching, what you see is only part of the job. Knowing your subject and being prepared to act on it is a major responsibility.
It starts with learning about your mission. Most board members are not experts on the mission their organization is striving to fulfill. That’s not a problem if you’re willing to accept your limits and learn.
However, learning needs to go beyond the mission. A much-neglected subject for staff and volunteers alike is about your constituent’s day-to-day experiences. What’s it like to be homeless, in a wheelchair, or to be a student today (and not back in the day)?
Some might even suggest that not being curious about your nonprofit’s mission might cause you to be an irresponsible board member who makes uninformed decisions.
The same could also be said of board members who do not prepare themselves adequately for board meetings.
Yes, it takes time. Yes, it can be arduous, especially the financial reports. But it is also very, very important. Coming into a board meeting unprepared can lead to disaster for the nonprofit. You take votes on money without knowing how much you have or how much you need. You give opinions on programs without understanding their purpose. Worse yet, you can embarrass yourself by asking questions that are already addressed in the material provided. Yes, you can trust your staff and fellow board members, but what if they’re not prepared either?
Living up to your responsibilities as a board member requires an understanding of your responsibilities to your organization, a willingness to place the board and your organization above yourself, and a constant desire to learn and improve.
Taking these points to heart will make your board service interesting and maybe even fun. They will enable you, your fellow board members, and your staff, to better serve the mission recipients who trust you to do the very best for them.