Wanted. A Few Good Board Members for Nonprofits.
The charitable world has seen a proliferation of nonprofit organizations over the past 25 years. As a result, more and more of us are finding ourselves attracted (or compelled) to serving as members of boards of directors of nonprofit organizations. But before you choose to sit on the board of your local museum, social service agency or other charity, you should consider whether you have what it takes to make a significant contribution to the organization – and you should fully understand your personal and legal obligations as a board member.
Of course, nonprofits vary greatly—in size, revenues, purpose and geography. Clearly, serving on the board of a small organization will vary greatly from serving on the board of a large institutional charity, such as a local university, or not-for-profit hospital. However, any board service requires the appropriate mind-set. While joining a non-profit board may have a certain prestige factor, such service should not be taken lightly. When you join a board of directors, you are taking on certain responsibilities, and you should be prepared.
Many directors begin their relationship with charitable organizations as either volunteers or donors, or both, but they often fail to fully accept their new role. A fundraising consultant to a local nonprofit who had embarked on a multimillion dollar capital fund-raising campaign was shocked when a director of the organization, who had been with the charity since its modest beginning, suggested they begin raising the targeted $16 million goal the old fashioned way – through bake sales. That’s a lot of cupcakes! This director had not evolved with the organization.
A board member is not just a volunteer. When you become a board member, your relationship with the organization, its staff and other volunteers immediately changes. You’ve entered the realm of Super-Volunteer – where both expectations and demands are greater. You’re looked at as an authority figure, donor prospect, counselor and even boss. In fact, it’s now your duty as a member of the board to select, encourage, advise, evaluate, and, if need be, replace the executive director or chief executive officer.
So, do you fit the role? Here are five things to consider:
- Know the Organization’s Mission. And believe in it. If you’re going to invest your time, intellect, money and energy, you need to be comfortable with the organization’s charitable purpose. Don’t join a board for the sake of joining!
- Focus on Moving the Organization Forward. Are the organization’s programs fulfilling its mission? Can you help the organization to get to where it wants to be? Be prepated to work with board and staff to move the organization forward.
- Intensive Oversight, Not Management. Don’t try to micro-manage, instead provide strategic direction and approve specific financial and programmatic objectives in order to make sure the charity stays on the proper course (or gets on it). It’s the board’s role to ensure that the organization is operating both effectively and responsibly.
- Don’t over or under commit! Be prepared to invest your time, skills, energy and, yes, money. Your engagement is the best thing you offer the charity. And remember, many boards now insist on minimum financial commitments from their board members, in addition to time and meeting attendance commitments.
- Fiduciary Duty – Your Legal Responsibilities. Directors must exercise their responsibilities in good faith and with a certain degree of diligence, attention, care and skill. As a director, you must avoid using your position to obtain a personal benefit. Take the time to review the organization’s latest Form 990 tax return, organizational documents and key board policies before agreeing to join a board.
The role of nonprofit boards has come under increased scrutiny in the wake of the nonprofit governance and reporting reforms and even scandals involving high profile charities. Donors are spending more time researching charities prior to making gifts and grantors are insisting on impact and accountability. Perhaps all of this has heightened our level of responsibility as directors, and that can’t be bad. When you join a board, don’t take the responsibility lightly!
This article was originally published in the Sun-Sentinel on December 13, 2004.