I recently wrote a post about how nonprofit executive directors can begin to Engage Their Seemingly Disengaged Board Members by using good volunteer management techniques. I made a promise then that I would be back to give board members some tips on how they can be better volunteers – the kind no one ever wants to lose.
Before we begin, I want to stress something that I see many board members overlook: the relationship between a board member and the nonprofit they serve is voluntary. This particular volunteer assignment comes with some significant responsibilities, no question, but the dominant stance of board members toward the organization should be the same as that of a good volunteer – How can I help?
There are many specific responsibilities that board members take on, from hiring and managing the CEO, to setting the strategic direction, to helping grow networks and resources. Amidst all of those specific duties, it is helpful as you enter this volunteer experience to know the three broad legal obligations that you would be undertaking, no matter what board you join.
Duty of Care. To fulfill this duty, a Board member needs to be well-informed of the activities of the organization – attending meetings and making decisions that a reasonable person would make with that same information. In short, you need to be paying attention to what is going on – contributing to strategic direction and assisting with key business issues. No, you do not need to know the color of the tablecloths for the fundraiser, participate in the hiring of the reception person, or design a new program.
Duty of Loyalty. A board member needs to ensure that they have no conflicts of interest – that they are prioritizing the nonprofit’s interests over their personal interests or the interests of another organization. This might look like a board member pushing a personal agenda (like a program idea) or focusing more on building up their own network over expanding the organization’s network - both examples of breaking the duty of loyalty. It also goes without saying that no board member should benefit financially from serving on a board.
Duty of Obedience. Here, board members need to ensure that the organization’s purpose – its mission – is centered in all decisions and that the organization complies with applicable laws and regulations. It can be hard for board members to actualize what it means in practice to center the mission in all decisions. Certainly, you need to ensure that mission creep (that tendency to pursue revenue over program integrity) does not occur; however, you also need to ensure that the mission is fully represented in everything from the budget to fundraising celebrations to human resource practices.
Faced with those duties, which will translate differently from organization to organization, here is a list of eight things that a good volunteer would do, followed by six ways you could achieve those things when you are on or considering joining a board:
A good volunteer …
Understands the role and level of commitment before signing on. I am continually amazed when I hear stories of board members coming to their first meeting barely understanding the mission of the organization, let alone the role they will play as a new board member in advancing the mission of the organization.
Is enthusiastic about the cause. The satisfaction of advancing the mission – of having had an impact – is the primary benefit any volunteer derives from their service. Amid all the fundraisers, audit committee meetings, and cash flow problems, it is the mission that will keep you going.
Continually learns about the cause. When fully engaging, service engenders reflection and a desire to learn more. For Board members, this can take the form of better understanding the operating environment – what other organizations are focused on and important policy and advocacy issues in your cause space.
Is flexible. The needs of organizations change, sometimes with little notice (anyone remember March of 2020?). You may need to bring your skills and knowledge to new problems or shift your attention.
Collaborates. Board Service, like many volunteer projects, is a team game. Good board members recognize that any authority they have is collective, not individual. The collaboration grows out of an understanding of a board's purpose as well as the deliberative nature of its obligations.
Is dedicated and dependable. One of the issues that drive CEOs and Board Presidents most to distraction is when a board member over promises and under delivers. When volunteers do not show up, the work of the organization grinds to a halt. Think about it: if you have four, two- hour board meetings a year, that is 8 hours of group time to accomplish a lot. You need to squeeze every bit of value out of those 480 minutes that you can - and this requires preparation outside of those 8 hours.
Recognize the efforts of the paid staff. Volunteers never forget that the organization has a paid staff of trained professionals. Providing counsel comes with the responsibility to maintain a healthy boundary, trusting that professionals can make reasonable decisions using that counsel. The staff may take this counsel or move in a different direction. At the end of the day, simply being on the board does not give any member the right to make operational decisions for the organization.
Moves on. When a volunteer no longer feels like they are having an impact, they look for a new volunteer experience. If board members were more reflective in partnership with board leadership and the executive director about the value of their own service, I believe practices like term limits would not need to exist. Everyone has an off year due to family or work or some other personal obligation; however, remaining on a board that you do not contribute to significantly is ultimately a burden on the organization and the board itself. Do you really want people to refer to you as dead weight?
Those are some broad principles for you to consider.
Now, how can you put this advice into action?
Before you begin your tenure, make sure to see the programs in action and to understand how the mission of this organization translates into that work. If you are not already familiar with the organization, approach this like a blind date. It will take longer to assess whether the fit is good than if you already have solid familiarity with the work.
If you are in a nominating process, ask about the requirements. Ensure that you have a full understanding of full board and committee meeting requirements, desired engagement (like visiting programs and attending fundraisers), and giving and fundraising expectations. As you begin your new volunteer role, it’s helpful to fully understand the unique value you will be adding.
Show up prepared at board and committee meetings. Spend time reviewing meeting materials in advance - it makes for a more engaging meeting and fulfills your Duty of Care. When you do have to miss a board or committee meeting, follow up proactively to hear everything that happened when you were not present.
Revisit your responsibilities often. During an ongoing or annual meeting with the executive director, ask if there have been any shifts in what they need from the Board of Directors and whether there are ways you could better direct your service for the coming year.
Set aside time for important hands-on duties. Giving advice is fun, isn’t it? You also need to “get your hands dirty” (strategically!). For a board, that’s everything from committee work to reviewing the financials to budgeting to introducing your network to the organization.
Create Google Alerts for a handful of similar organizations to see how they approach their work. You can create similar alerts for your issue area and “policy” or “legislation” to keep apprised of what is happening in the field. These are great discussion points for one-on-one meetings with the executive director so you can also better understand how all of this affects the organization.
Does this sound like a lot? It is. The commitment to board service is great, but the rewards are also abundant – knowing that you played a key role on the team that ensures that the mission of your organization is a little closer to being achieved than it was when you arrived.
If my mantra is true – that a volunteer is an employee who gets paid with something other than money – then it is critical that you understand the job, the psychic compensation you will receive (that good feeling from being a part of something impactful and successful), and that you make a full commitment to the organizations success.
Behaving in this way and with this mindset will make you a cherished board member that no one wants to lose.