Joining a non-profit board is a wonderful opportunity and a chance to make an impact on the lives of so many people.
Over the years, working in fundraising, I carefully watched the boards of the non-profit organizations where I worked as well as many of the boards in the granting organizations of our community. I got to know those board members very well through the work that I was doing and even today count many of them as wonderful acquaintances and some are even close friends.
I could see when boards were functioning very well and remarkably productive and when, well, when some were simply teetering and not accomplishing much to help the organization. I watched one board of a local hospital draw together, put themselves on the line, reach out to their friends and plan a new hospital, champion it throughout the community, give and get generously, and celebrate when the hospital opened its doors. Likewise, I saw one board that couldn't leave the starting gate when land became available that would have been ideal for a new, much-needed facility.
Later, in joining non-profit boards, I realized that I had a duty to work for the best interests of the organization, a duty of loyalty to put the organization first and avoid conflicts of interest, and a duty to be faithful to the central goals of the organization.
So as you are joining a board, vow to be the best board member you can be for an organization that you admire, one to which you can make a true contribution of your time and talent.
Right off the bat you know that you must enthusiastically participate in board meetings and you have an obligation to fully prepare for those meetings.
There is no doubt that you must make a generous contribution to the board--if they have not told you how much in advance of your acceptance, you should ask the question. Don't be surprised--surprise them with your generosity. At the very least, in the absence of other information, your gift should be commensurate with your financial means.
But your commitment doesn't stop with your gift...that's just the beginning. You also have to be prepared to participate in their philanthropic program by attending special events, inviting individuals or corporations to give, identifying potential prospects for the development team. As competition for large gifts rises, fostering relationships with high-level prospects becomes an essential role of the board.
You have to actively make it a point to stay informed about what is going on in the organization--and it is important to give feedback. You will be asked to make decisions on issues, policies and other board matters. You will be asked to represent the organization in the community, so you have to know the facts and feel positive and supportive.
Of course, working with other board members and staff towards the organizational goals is a given--and you have to do it positively, being supportive and working for the good of the organization.
A key advantage is one where the members of the Board, the leadership, and the staff work together in a purpose-driven mode. Their actions are so constructive that they come together to attack issues and opportunities with a collective genius all their own. No one ever wants to leave a board or an organization that has this going for them!
In today's world, it is particularly important to safeguard against a few key mistakes that boards make--but you can do that by anticipating what those mistakes are and troubleshooting in an anticipatory way.
You must work to produce board diversity...create a matrix of skills that are needed, experiences, backgrounds, ethnicity, age, gender to add a valuable perspective to the board. People with backgrounds in fundraising, law and accounting are valuable and so are individuals, for example, with a teaching background for an educationally focused non-profit.
Be sure to limit your time that might be spent on tasks that can be handled by paid staff. It is very easy to get drawn into this--but that means your time on high-level issues that are the focus of the board is much more time-limited. Also, if board members begin to make demands on staff time, it becomes too much and board members clearly have crossed a line. It means that they are also undermining the responsibilities of the executives responsible for the organization.
Make sure that your board gives a regular performance review to the executives, one that is organized from the outset--does this recognize the jobs well done and flag the issues that may need some work? Is there documentation for issues that may be in judgement, abuses of authority, harassment?
Make sure that you are amongst the board members who are attending meetings regularly and participating meaningfully--hopefully, if you are not doing that, the Chair will request that you move on.
Don't avoid the tough questions during board meetings...it can be uncomfortable for sure...so can challenging a fellow board member...but it's important. There is plenty of evidence showing that board members who speak their mind in a careful manner are some of the most valuable of all board members. Open and thoughtful discussion should be the watchword.
If you have not been given a tour, if you have not been educated about the mission of the organization, the challenges it faces, the financial situation, then you cannot meet your duties. So if you have not received any of this "onboarding" you must request it promptly.
Your attendance at board meetings, your preparation for the meetings, your understanding will all lead you to enjoy the work that boards do for non-profit organizations.
There is one organization in town that I watch carefully. The non-profit granting organization is made up of very powerful and influential board members. The members are very carefully chosen and are very respected individually as well as collectively. While they may have their differences within the board room, one never hears it outside of the organization. And if you talk to the board members, they each express remarkable satisfaction with their involvement...in fact, if they didn't have term limits, I would bet there is no one who would want to rotate off.
The more you do, the more you can do and it's very reinforcing to know that you are making a difference. This is the kind of satisfaction that you would hope to achieve with your own board experiences...the sense of productivity for the non-profit, the enjoyment of working with others and accomplishing something to benefit the community in an impactful way...in that sense you find that you care more than you ever expected.
You have one life and can resolve to bring the best to the board. This is the most positive way to make an impact on the community--and bring satisfaction to your own life.