Nonprofit Board Membership: It’s a Real Job
A friend or colleague (or your boss) encourages you to join one of the many local nonprofit boards looking for members because you’d be great and it’s a good resume builder. Although it can be a wonderful compliment, here are some things you might want to think about before jumping in.
The seminal work of BoardSource, the leading think tank for nonprofit board management, developed the Ten Key Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards. We use this in our work with boards and have expanded upon this research.
The board must be intricately involved in long-term planning, which should be held separately from a regular board meeting and can be a day-long commitment. We have facilitated retreats where nearly every board member attended, as well as sessions with just one or two showing up. During planning, the board has the opportunity to revisit the mission statement to ensure the organization is fulfilling its promise to stakeholders. In 80% of our engagements, the mission statement ends up being adjusted to ensure relevancy, understanding, and ease of communication.
Additionally, the board gains additional insight into the deliverables of the organization, including how quality and effectiveness are measured. It has been surprising to us the number of board members who are not aware of the full complement of service deliverables, for whom, and how. While it is up to the CEO and staff to implement the plan, the board will have a greater understanding of the challenges to the organization and what might be realistic goals when giving input into the long-term direction of the agency.
Productive Board Meetings
Board meetings should be a way of moving the organization forward, not just re-hashing what has already happened or issues that are constantly talked about but never resolved. Reports—financial statements, committee reports, status of metrics, events calendar, CEO report—should be received prior to the meeting. The expectation is that the board packet will be reviewed prior to the meeting so members can then be prepared with any questions they may have. How frustrating for those who were diligent in preparing information only to have unprepared board members ask questions that are clearly answered in the report. Board meetings should be 1/3 about the past and 2/3 about the future – what can we do to make the organization even better?
Committees that Support the Strategic Plan
When we talk about board committees, members often have adverse reactions. They see committees as additional meetings to attend and often a waste of time with little result (unfortunately, many are). However, a strong committee structure is one of the best resources a board can have. For effective boards, active committees can do the heavy lifting of analysis, research, and brainstorming resulting in a deliverable to the full board, whether a recommendation or request.
Most boards have the usual set of committees—governance, finance, marketing, programs, etc. Some of these committees are required for all boards, but for others—what exactly is a committee supposed to do? We recommend that the committee structure support the strategic plan of the organization. Governance and finance are always necessary as standing committees, but most of the others should be driven by the strategic plan and designed to further the goals of the organization. The key piece is committee training in terms of the goals of the committee and expectations of its members.
Investing Time and Money
Many board members believe that the investment of their time can be exchanged for investment of their money. BoardSource makes clear they are not one and the same. One of the key responsibilities of board members is to help financially support the organization. Not everyone can be a big dollar donor, but providing some type of annual contribution is important. The CEO is expected to be the chief fundraiser, but board members can help open doors and introduce the CEO to potential donors and persons of influence.
Show Up and Participate
Finally, if we had one overriding recommendation for board members, it is to show up and participate at board meetings, committee meetings, planning retreats, and key events. It’s a time commitment, but it's also one of the best ways for board members to actively support the organization and make meaningful contributions.
In our 30+ years of practice, we have met some incredible board members who give their hearts and souls to the organization they support and have done some incredible things. So, looking for a way to give back to the community or an organization you support? Taking a role as a board member can not only help the organization but also contribute to your own professional development and personal satisfaction. But if you are signing up as a board member to simply add to your resume or because you can’t say no to a friend or colleague, please think again. Done well, it’s a real job!
About the Author
Jan Breiner Frazier, the managing member of Planning Plus, LLC, has been a consulting professional since 1988. She has designed and facilitated strategic, annual, and operational planning sessions for a multitude of organizations. Her work with nonprofit boards and associations has included strategic planning, board development, and committee structure. She recently spoke at our February Mutz Institute session on Board Governance.