As a Board Member, Do You Have Commitment Issues?

A change is brought about, says former president Obama, because ordinary people can do extraordinary things. That is surely true for the board of a non-profit organization. The rules are these: board members make a positive commitment to the organization while the staff is making a positive commitment to the board. This is a new year--I'd like to explore the background of what this really means for each party.

A board member of an organization must secure and promote the financial, legal and ethical well being of the organization and ensure that it fulfills its mission. There is a duty of care to work in the organization's best interests, a duty of loyalty to avoid any conflicts of interest, and a duty of obedience to be faithful to the central goals of the organization and follow its governing rules.

My experience with staffing boards? Well, boards can be very uneven...boards are usually made up of a group that is very committed, a group that just goes along with the first group, and the group that doesn't come to meetings or participate until they just have to do so to remain on the board. Working with the first group can simply be exhilarating, working with the second group can get you to where you want to go eventually, but frustrating is the only word for the third group.

How do you get into the top boards in your city? Put your best individual efforts to:

  • Attend, fully prepare for, and diligently participate in board meetings as well as the inevitable special events.

  • Very important: Make an annual personal financial contribution at a level commensurate with the expectations of the board or within your financial means, reflecting that the organization is one of your personal priorities.

  • Use your best efforts to approach or introduce individuals or corporations for philanthropic outreach purposes.

  • Stay informed about what is going on in the organization--ask questions and obtain information as needed.

  • Participate--actively voice opinions and concerns, open-mindedly consider everyone else's opinions in all board decision making.

  • Always represent the organization in a positive, supportive manner.

  • Work collaboratively with staff and other board members as partners to achieve the goals.

  • Maintain confidentiality.

In turn, what should a board member expect from the staff?

  • The staff should provide regular financial reports and analyses and updates on significant organizational activities and interpret these in a way that highlights the key issues of concern.

  • They should provide opportunities to discuss important organizational issues with the board chair, President or CFO as appropriate. While much of this can be accomplished at board meetings, some of it may take place off-line.

  • The staff or other board members should respond in a straightforward fashion to any questions that are necessary to carry out a board member's responsibilities.

This experience should be very positive for both the board members and staff and if everyone does his/her own jobs, this should move the organization forward in a very positive way.

Does it always? Compare and contrast.

The only direction is up for this board: I know a board and staff from a smaller health care organization. They have established such synergy in their decision making and fundraising that anyone can easily see their major steps of progress to move the organization forward. These steps have brought them to the attention of some major foundations. That progress includes a new state of the art facility, dramatic increases in fundraising, and a significant broadening of the fundraising base. Board members and staff as well are both more than happy. Several of the board members are remarkable leaders, including the chair of the board, and take their responsibilities very seriously. They talk all the time and relish their roles and discussions together. They have very deliberately moved forward in a reinforcing environment and it shows. They have established a sustainable advantage.

What happened here and why does it continue? There is also a major group with a remarkable board that has the potential to change the world. However, the leader has actually told the members that he is simply happy that they lend their names to the organization. He does not expect much more than that. Unfortunately fundraising has not been a priority and, well, how many times would you think someone would make a gift or work with the staff under those circumstances? Even so, some members do all the things that are important for a board, but the frustration circles around the opportunity lost for those who could be doing much more and moving such an important mission forward within the community. Unfortunately this is very unhelpful for the organization that has a critical mission for the community.

If you are not a committed board member, it is so much better to step down from your role--let someone who really wants to be on the board be on the board and do their part. There is no problem with stepping down, it is important to replenish board talent with those who have the time and inclination to put their efforts towards the goals. And it will be a relief in many ways for the staff and the other board members, and likely for the uncommitted board member as well.

So, if you have a commitment issue, identify that and either recommit to your responsibilities and identify those things that you can contribute to the board or simply step down of your own accord. There is really no time to lose for anyone.

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