What you really need to think about before joining a nonprofit board.

by Christy Shepard, managing member, Planning Plus LLC

As we approach the new year, many of us reflect on how to increase our positive impact on our local communities. Joining a nonprofit board is a wonderful and altruistic way to serve your community and causes.

Through our professional engagements, our team is often brought into organizations to assist with board leadership and development, helping support the role of the board and its committees in line with their strategic plans. We talk to board members and agency leadership about the qualities and skills desired in board members and how to align them for a successful board engagement.

If want to become a board member, first consider, how much do you know about the role? Next, ask yourself how much do you know about the organization that is requesting your time, talent, and treasure? After working with numerous organizations with diverse pools of board members for 35 years, we recommend reflecting on the following questions and tips before signing on the dotted line.

Why are you considering joining a board? There are a lot of reasons and motivations for being connected to a nonprofit through a volunteer commitment; joining its board is just one. Board membership can be a significant commitment. What do you have the capacity to give beyond what you are doing today? Can you give more time to a committee or task force or are you truly ready for board leadership?

What is the required commitment of time, talent, and treasure? Every board is different as is the level of time required for your board role, both in and outside of board and committee meetings. However, Board Source, a trusted index of nonprofit best practices information, provides a clear set of 10 basic responsibilities every board must provide at a minimum to ensure proper oversight and due diligence.

  1. Determine the organization’s mission and purpose. It is the board’s responsibility to create and review a statement of mission and purpose that articulates the organization’s goals, means, and primary constituents served. It is wise to review both as well as the vision as part of the strategic planning process.
  2. Select the chief executive. The board must reach consensus on the chief executive’s responsibilities and are responsible for selecting and hiring the most qualified individual for the position.
  3. Provide proper financial oversight. With assistance as needed, the board is responsible for developing the annual budget and ensuring that proper financial controls are in place.
  4. Ensure adequate resources. One of the board’s foremost responsibilities is to provide adequate resources for the organization to fulfill its mission. Key resources include the professional talents, skills, and contacts that board members can provide in support to the chief executive.
  5. Ensure legal and ethical integrity, and maintain accountability. The board is ultimately responsible for ensuring adherence to legal standards and ethical norms. As part of the mission and vision review, it is recommended that the board review the organizational values in line with the desired culture to support the mission and the stakeholders.
  6. Ensure effective organizational planning. Board members must actively participate in an overall planning process and assist in implementing and monitoring the plan’s goals. Ongoing monitoring of the plan goals should be part of committee and board meeting work.
  7. Recruit and orient new board members and assess board performance. Boards have a responsibility to accurately articulate qualifications and commitments required of candidates, orient new members and provide resources and support to perform duties, and periodically and comprehensively evaluate its own performance.
  8. Enhance the organization’s public standing. The board should clearly articulate the organization’s mission, accomplishments, and goals to the public and garner support from the community. If there is an issue of brand and reputation, it is incumbent upon the board to address and act in line with its mission and community promise.
  9. Determine, monitor, and strengthen the organization’s programs and services. While the day-to-day operations and programing decisions are left to the staff, it is the board’s responsibility to determine if programs are consistent with the organization’s mission and to monitor their effectiveness.
  10. Support the chief executive and assess his or her performance. The board should ensure that the chief executive has the moral and professional support he or she needs to further the goals of the organization.

Board structures: Working boards and governing boards

Board structures can be designed to serve different purposes for the organization, each requiring different levels of engagement and decision-making from the board members based on board maturation and organizational life cycle.

Organizational lifecycles affect the type of board needed for the organization at a particular moment in time. An organization just getting started and embarking on grassroots marketing and fundraising would likely require a working board with a different set of skills, connections, and time commitments than a governing board of an established, financially sound, and thriving nonprofit organization. Every board is different, and the level of time required for your board role, both in meetings and outside of meetings, will vary depending on numerous factors. What the board role should be providing in these areas may or may not be a level you can provide.

Let’s talk about two critically important types of boards, working boards and governing boards.

A working board is typically found in a young or grassroots nonprofit, with limited or no staff. Working boards have the 10 governing responsibilities of most boards as well as additional responsibilities tied to operational performance. These board members are responsible for setting and carrying out the board’s strategic plan and directives. While some may see this as blurring lines, a working board is often operating out of necessity. It is essential that these board members remain committed to the directives of the board rather than acting on their own accord. Hiring full-time staff is probably on the horizon for these working boards, but not financially feasible now.

A working board is responsible for both the governance and management of the organizational strategies with often requires more adherence to structures that allow for consistent implementation while providing operational flexibility and responsiveness.

A governing board is the traditional style many think of when referring to board service. A governing board oversees the strategic direction of the organization and monitors operations from a distance. These board members typically operate under 2- or 3-year term limits to foster the turnover of members and ideas. This board is strictly distinct from a working board as it is a board over governance and NOT management. The outcomes of their decisions and votes are used to guide the actions of the chief executive and their staff.

Either way, both sets of board members carry both fiscal and fiduciary responsibility for the organization. What exactly does this mean? Board members are responsible for balancing the budget, reducing debt, and ensuring that the organization is not spending more than it is taking in. Additionally, board members have a legal and ethical obligation to act in the best interest of the organization, putting the interests of the overall organization ahead of their own.

Still ready to make the commitment? Do your research.
This information is not presented to scare anyone out of board involvement and participation but to give an overview of the true importance and responsibilities of a board of directors. If you’ve been asked to join a board, it is likely because you have the talents and skills, as well as perspective and qualities needed by the organization. Take time to research the mission and impact of the organization carefully and thoughtfully by reviewing the board bylaws, committee structures, and current strategic plan. Review the most recent board development plan and board roster to ensure that they are realistic goals. And finally, be sure to fully understand the financial and time commitments required for board members to help bring the mission to life.

Board and staff members are some of the most powerful and impactful resources nonprofit organizations have. Understanding how much responsibility and influence you have as a board member can make all the difference in the world.