Thoughts on Non-Profit Board Service
More twenty-something-year-olds are finding their way onto nonprofit boards, steering committees and other forms of governance. Some are even starting their own nonprofits. One of the things that was impressed on me early on in my first board experience was the importance of ‘best practices’. Best practices ideally are put in place to ensure proper functioning of the board, above and beyond cults of personality, petty strife, and sudden losses of directors. All of which are known to happen. The nonprofit community can be shockingly political, especially to idealists but are essential to business and philanthropy.
A board should ideally be composed of neither too many nor to few members. Each member should contribute something by way of experience, education and/or community position. Preferably a combination of the three. The normal positions of president, vice president, treasurer,and secretary should be filled. They may be called by different names, but their role is essential. The responsibilities of the board members should be spelled out very clearly in the bylaws, which should also be clear and concise. Board members should also understand that their role is not volunteering in the typical sense, though they may choose to do that as well. They are there to govern the oversight of the organization. Ideally a separate party serves as the executive director or manager of the organization, who will answer to the board. This is not always the case, and when that is so,it is the job of the whole board to hold that member fully accountable.
Board members should be mindful that they are a 24/7 representative of the organization to the outside world, anything that they do can reflect on the board in either a positive or negative light. Good behavior by board members reflects positively on the organization. Even the perception of wrongdoing can cause negative impact with volunteers and donors. This is not a suggestion to be paranoid, but it is a reminder that what you are committing to, (and it is a commitment) is not insignificant. This is especially the case when it comes to financial aspects. The board is responsible for steering the organization financially in a responsible, and sustainable direction while adhering to the organization’s vision. A board that is constantly in the red or underfunded needs to look at its spending practices. Sustaining the vision should always be a priority over trying to expand reach.Understanding conflict of interest and related agreements should be had by all of the board. Conflict of interest plays an especially critical role on steering committees where finance is involved. If one is on a committee that is handing out grants while working for a local pet shelter that has applied for a grant, one should, and are expected to, recuse oneself from the discussion. You should also never be intimidated by other board members, especially officers,into violating the law or acting unethically. As a board member you have a responsibility to your organization and to yourself to do the right thing.
Even the most well behaved board of directors can fall prey to petty politics. Ideally,the board has policies in place that limit the damage from internal fighting,be prepared though, it is probable you will see, or even suffer from vicious attacks regarding board decisions and votes. The board is a political environment, which may be shocking to some, especially in apolitical fields. Be prepared to manage conflict, and ease tensions. Always do what you think is right, but remember the value of a kind word and gesture. The job of the board is to maintain the well being of the organization. Hopefully everyone privileged to sit on the board sees that. At the end of the day remember you are all working for the same goal.
Being on a board of directors can be very stressful. It is often an unpaid position, and truly a labor of love. Sometimes, the immensity of decisions you are asked to weigh in on may take you by surprise. Even if you do not feel qualified or find yourself in a difficult situation remember that you are there to serve the board and do so to the best of your ability as a leader. Leadership is taxing, do not take for granted your own well-being. Make sure your own financial situation is acceptable before making time commitments. Don't be afraid to step back for a few days and learn to recognize when you are getting mentally or emotionally exhausted. Suffering burnout will not help the organization, and will certainly hurt you. Find time to talk to people both on and off the board about how you are feeling, (make sure you don't violate any board policy with what you discuss). You always have time to take a walk, get a good meal or take a nap.
Lastly, know when it's time to move on. Serve your term on the board with care and responsibility, but don't feel forced to sign on for more than you can handle. If you agreed to a time commitment when you joined the board, it is best to honor it if you can. However,do not be pressured into agreeing to a second term if you are unable, or it would be unwise for you to do so. No matter how much you love the people or the mission, a good exit is just as important as a good entrance. Remember the words of John Maxwell that “People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision” and act accordingly.