Having sat on more than 20 boards in the past 30 years, I’ve seen my share of nonprofit’s problems. A few, I’ve seen repeated continuously for decades. Disengaged, ill-prepared, uninformed board members time and again fail to serve in a way that maximizes the benefit to the nonprofits they are seeking to help.
Board members are introduced and then immediately expected to get along, share ideas and be productive. But that’s a difficult pattern for boards to follow effectively. Many nonprofits don’t know best practices and therefore may not have determined the special skills and talents they need, nor what their current board member possess. Further, many board members don’t speak up about their lack of board training. Often, their talents don’t get used effectively or they aren’t equipped to contribute fully.
So, how can nonprofit boards be more effective? It comes down to choosing better board members and training them once they join.
So what makes a stellar board member?
Choose the right board: First, select an organization that you really care about. It should be one that you will be proud to promote in the community, one in which you can be an enthusiastic member of the team and whose mission meets your personal interests and passions.
Second, choose a board that will give you the training to be an effective leader, capable of helping the board carry out its mission.
Third, pick a board that governs itself properly and follows good practices under nonprofit laws or is willing to accept help to implement appropriate changes.
Be an ambassador. If you are on a board, you must know your product. Understand the board’s mission and be an enthusiastic supporter of the organization. If someone asks you about the organization, they don’t want to hear about it for an hour. You need to be able to communicate who you are and what do you do in an elevator pitch that is engaging and informative.
Here’s an example: “I sit on the board of directors for City Year-Sacramento. City Year is a national, education-focused nonprofit that unites young people for a year of national service (Americorps) to work in partnership with teachers and school administrators. They help improve students’ ABCs: attendance, behavior and core curriculum. In Sacramento, more than 50 Americorps members serve over 3,000 students each day in an effort to keep them in school and on-track to graduate, while gaining a real world experience and the leadership skills they need to be successful in the professional world.”
In your role as an ambassador, you will use that elevator pitch (or a longer pitch as appropriate) to encourage people to connect with the organization. Use it to invite potential supporters to an events, special engagement or on a tour. You will also use it to educate the public and other potential board members.
You can also use your role as an ambassador to connect your nonprofit to outside resources and organizations. We must have our nonprofits collaborating. They are numerous, and many of them have duplicative services. By pursuing partnerships, you can go back to your board and say, “I met so-and-so. Could we work together to pursue a greater outcome?”
Be an advocate: Advocate enthusiastically for the organization wherever you can. Make sure you come prepared to your meetings. Encourage the board to follow these best practices:
Be trustworthy: Do not talk about the organization’s business outside of the boardroom. Confidentiality is paramount, and unfortunately some board members fail to comply with this responsibility, creating a lack of trust.
Respect the chain of command: Most boards hire and fire the director, and the director hires and fires the staff. A good board member follows the chain of command.
Respect majority rule: If you’re voting on an issue and you lose, majority rules. Get over it. You must walk out of your meetings with one voice, and you can be helpful by saying, “OK, I may not agree with this, and I understand we need to be unified but what are our talking points?”
Fiduciary responsibilities: You must take this seriously, including inquiring about nonprofit corporate status, budgets and financial statements, personnel policies, filing tax returns and carrying appropriate insurance, including director and officer liability insurance.
Be prepared: Review board minutes and financial statements. Unfortunately, many people on boards don’t know how to read financial statements. If you don’t understand, get some help.
Be an asker: You must be a giver. Donating your time is very important, but an organization cannot take time to the bank. I personally wish people did not view corporate giving as good enough; you need to have personal skin in the game. After all, who knows the needs of the organization better than the board members?
As far as being an asker, I understand some people are not good at asking for money. If you’re not good at closing the deal, I don’t want you to do it. But there are other opportunities everyone can participate in, such as asking people to come to an event, a tour or to join you for lunch with key individuals from your organization. You can provide information and begin to build relationships between the organization and potential donors and volunteers. Participate in your fundraisers, sell tickets, procure auction items, attend the events. That is all part of asking.
Do a quick self-assessment: Ask yourself, “Am I overcommitted and therefore not giving this organization the level of service that I should? If this is what’s expected of me, is this the right organization for me? Where can I improve?” At the end of the day, we can only be responsible for our own actions. Build a reputation for service by providing premium engagement to your nonprofit board.