Engaged and intelligent nonprofit boards are behind some of the most impactful, effective and efficient organizations. And, conversely, apathetic and chaotic boards are behind some of the most ineffective and stagnant organizations. Boards are critical to the success of the organization. They can also cause a lot of harm if they don’t know what they are doing. Though they should not be involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization, they are responsible for hiring and managing the performance of the Executive Director, who is accountable for operations. They also manage risk, support strategy and attract resources.
Ultimately, a solid board can enable transformational, positive impact in the community.
For newbies, it can be hard to understand what needs to be done in order to be a good board member. And for those entrenched, we sometimes need to peek our heads out of the melee to see if our work is actually effective. The tips in this blog can serve both kinds of board members – folks who are just starting out, and those who have been in the trenches for years. There are enough ineffective boards out there to warrant a read even if you think your board is great. Also, if you think your board is perfect you may in fact be the biggest culprit of inappropriate board behaviour that is going unaddressed.
How to Prep for Being an Effective Board Member
Determining ‘fit’ can be one of the most important first steps you take in assessing a potential board to join. Ensuring you’re passionate and informed about the mission and activities of the organization is imperative. If there isn’t alignment with your values and skills as well as the organization’s priorities it will never work out. If you find the right organization with a mission you care deeply about and it requires a skill or connection that you can offer it's a win-win. The whole point of joining a board is for you to add value to their mission and move it forward.
Joining a board is not about building your resume. It’s about the mission first. Always. Building your resume is a side bonus if that matters to you but being on a board is about contributing real value to the organization. If you can’t contribute real value, don’t join. The secret password to join the Unity Charity board of directors was "I only want to join if I can add real value, I don't want to get in the way."
Once you’ve determined that you are, indeed, aligned with the organization’s mission, then you’ll want to make sure that you can offer something that the board actually needs today. A board diverse in skills, backgrounds, life experiences, networks and other attributes will better be able to amplify impact. You want to add unique value and not be one of many with similar skills and experiences. If you look around the table and everyone does what you do or looks like you, you might want to consider stepping back.
Don’t be too disappointed if you aren’t selected for the board. This is actually a blessing for both you and the organization; it means that the board recognizes that what the organization needs is not something you can contribute. A well-managed board does not say “yes” to every potential candidate. This is usually determined if the organization uses a board skills matrix.
One of the most important questions to ask potential board members is, “what skills do you need on your board right now?” Not two years ago, not six months ago. Right now.
What To Do Once You’ve Joined
Always come prepared! Great board members ensure they’ve read all the emails and documents communicated by board members IN ADVANCE. If you’re asking questions whose answers are contained in those communications, you’re wasting everyone’s time. We suggest creating a consent agenda to communicate key info that does not require discussion. This saves time for effective discussions that need to happen. If you have a question about the materials sent out consider calling the Executive Director before the meeting to gain clarification unless you feel it needs to be discussed.
Good board members are aware of what stage the organization is at. This requires great listening and self-reflection skills as well as asking the right questions. Start-up charity boards are very different from boards with well-established governance structures. Know the stage the organization is at and its governance needs. Are your skills best fit for start-up boards or more established organizations?
Sometimes board members apply board governance "rules" for organizations without truly understanding the organization’s needs. This can be satisfied with a well written and up to date board member job description as well as a clear skill set matching through a board skills matrix. We can all be well informed “experts” in the Carver governance model, but we need to more importantly pay attention to the organization’s current and ever changing context and environment. Is your organization in a phase that requires a "working board" or a "governance board"? Know the difference and the skills for which you are best suited.
The board that helped in the start-up days is not necessarily the board that is needed to scale an organization to new locations. Term limits are critical on all boards. In our opinion, no one should be on a board for more than two terms. You need fresh ideas. This is especially true for founders. Accept when it’s time to leave and celebrate outgoing board member contributions.
It's not only important to ensure that you’re carrying out the board work expected of you, but also assisting the board chair in ensuring that everyone else is, too. If you feel like someone is slacking or apathetic, speak with the board chair to have a conversation with members who aren’t pulling their weight. They may be experiencing something in their work or personal life that may actually require them to step down from the board. An honest conversation can sort this out, usually one led by the board chair. It takes every board member’s vigilance and engagement to create a healthy culture, but a board is only as strong as its weakest link and stagnant board members can cause conflict and set a low bar that holds everyone back.
Reminders for “Good” Board Members
A rule to live by as a board member is “NIFO” – Nose In Fingers Out. Board members should not be involved in day to day operations of the non-profit. Ask questions and dig deeper to be well informed from a mission, strategy, finance and risk management standpoint. Don’t directly manage or interfere with staff on performance management issues or get involved in frontline programming.
Another “rule” we heard when joining our first board, “Give, Get or Get Off”. If you’re not supporting the mission of the organization by getting behind fundraisers, leveraging your networks, making fruitful connections and introductions, and helping hit fundraising targets then it’s time to re-evaluate your contribution. Sometimes you can work with another board member to help you learn strategies to leverage your contribution.
You can get creative with your contribution because support doesn’t always come in the form of money. You can utilize your networks to support the organization through in-kind services, donated goods, and financial resources. Giving your time in-kind also has great value such as legal, accounting, finance, design, marketing, or other key services. Don’t sit on your hands - reach out to your contacts and engage your networks.
Good board members are constantly learning how they can do better and improve their performance on the board. They don’t coast or “float”. The most dangerous thing is a board member who "knows what they are doing because they served on past boards" but doesn't actually know anything about good governance. If you think you’re a great board member, make sure you are constantly learning, reflecting and asking if you’re adding real value on an ongoing basis to your organization.
Good board members lead by example. Take the initiative rather than waiting for someone to ask you to do something. If you lead by example in every action in service to the organization's mission you will create a powerful momentum that is contagious amongst board members. Your impact is amplified by your contribution and the contributions you inspire around the board table.
If you are considering joining a board or looking to improve your board governance structure feel free to reach out to Mike to grab a coffee. Mike facilitates board governance training 1 on 1 and for groups.
This blog is a collaborative piece by EPIC team members Michael Prosserman and Tina de los Santos