When someone invites you to serve on the board of directors of a nonprofit, you can assume that someone thinks you’re a smarty.
Someone thinks you are smart enough to pitch in and help grow the organization to have more impact in the world. It probably also means the someone believes you know people you could invite to support the work. It may also mean that the someone knows you to have special skills: legal, financial, communications, human resources, content expertise, lived experience of the problem or solution. And let’s not kid ourselves, the someone also believes you have your own money to contribute to the work. The old saying is that you want a board whose members represent “wealth, work, and wisdom,” which represent different paths to resources that will make it possible to do more change work that matters.
The thing is, brand new board members don’t always feel like smarties when they join in. Why?
One reason is that typically, we don’t tell you why we invited you to join the board. We don’t point out what we see (or think we see), talk honestly about gaps and needs in the organization, and ask or invite you to respond.
Another reason is that in many organizations, we don’t do a good enough job of orienting and supporting board members — especially those smarties who are smart in their own business, creative, and personal lives, but perhaps not yet smart in the ways of nonprofit operations and finance. Which is most people.
What can you do?
- Figure out why you are on this board. Consider why they invited you — and it’s ok to ask them directly. Consider why you said yes. What do you most want to contribute to this board — what elements or aspects of your wealth, work, and wisdom do you hope to put toward making a difference? Having an honest conversation about that with the board chair, the executive director, or another board member will deepen your experience and open the possibility for it to be more meaningful for you. And more productive for the organization and the community.
- Ask for a special meeting for orientation of new board members to happen annually. If this isn’t a current practice on your board, no one feels they have the time to organize this. Offering to work with one or two other board members to craft a session might make it happen.
- Try the ol’ community organizer’s fix-all: one-on-one meetings. Schedule coffee or tea with the board chair, the Executive Director, and at least one other board member.
- Understand that the board’s role is governance and stewardship, and in partnership with the chief executive, strategic direction. In general, this means that the board monitors and provides counsel to management and rarely gets involved in the day-to-day affairs of the organization. And that you should never, never go into the office and direct (or distract) the staff.
- Board members together share a collective role for governance, stewardship, and strategic direction. In addition, each of you has a separate, individual role and set of responsibilities as individual volunteers (such as your personal gift commitment, your fundraising tasks, your other special skills and offers to support the work).
- Over time, learn the basics of nonprofit finance. The rules are similar to, but not the same, as straight-ahead business. No one is born knowing this stuff, especially as it relates to nonprofit organizations. Here’s a list of resources for a deep dive into nonprofit finance.
- Don’t run from fundraising! Every organization needs people who can ask other people directly for money — if you are that person, thank you. If you are not that person, stay open to finding ways you can feel comfortable and excited to invite others to invest and participate. Every organization also needs people who can do other things that attract resources: plan parties, ask for in-kind donations of food and services, sell tickets, write thank you notes and make thank you calls. Find something in the cycle of asking and thanking that you feel great about doing.
- Skim some of these classic and new reads:
- What’s the Point of a Nonprofit Board, Anyway? (Jan Masaoka)
- Tale of the Super-Involved Board (Vu Le)
- The Board Members Easier Than You Think Guide to Nonprofit (Andy Robinson)
Congratulations on joining a board of directors. Go forth authentically, listen, be thoughtful, be courageous, and do good work. You smarty.
Appeared previously as New to Serving on a Nonprofit Board? on LinkedIn (June 27, 2016).