My favorite line in the nonprofit world is, “If you’ve seen one nonprofit board, you’ve seen one nonprofit board.” Having served on many nonprofit boards and working with over 50 boards a year in southeast Michigan I see a lot of variations. Depending on the mission, the board chair, the revenue situation, the strength of the board’s committees and many other assorted factors, I witness effective and productive boards, unengaged and completely detached boards, and all types in between.
Boards that stand out for me are ones that:
- Have board chairs that create cultures of accountability (meeting attendance, committee work, returning emails, etc.)
- Have passion for the mission
- Partner with their top executive and think about ways to relieve pressure from that person
- Make a meaningful, unrestricted annual donation
- Are real ambassadors for the services, programs and mission of the nonprofit in their personal spheres of influence
- Focus on their own productivity, succession and ability to affect mission accomplishment
- Embrace training and education
What Area Executive Directors Say
In 2009 I engaged in an informal survey of executive directors in southeast Michigan. I asked them, “Besides fundraising, what is the most important thing you need from your board members today.” Keeping in mind this was at the height of the recession and all of executive directors I spoke to wanted boards that would embrace fundraising, what I heard was really interesting.
They ranked their top three needs in the following order:
- Passion for the mission
- Be engaged (come to meetings, read your board packet before you come, provide vision)
- Be an ambassador
In some cases I had executive directors tell me in confidence that they work around their boards because they provide no real value to mission. I also had executive directors that are burned out from having to lead their boards through every step. Sadly, I had many tell me that many of their board members do not even make a personal annual gift to the nonprofit.
Board’s rank a C+
The BoardSource Nonprofit Governance Index 2010, a survey of approximately 1,750 nonprofits from across the country, reported that chief executives give their boards a C+ on overall performance. I don’t know about you, but if I ever came home with a C+ I would have had to spend evenings and weekends hitting the books! Where did board members get the most failing grades? They got poor marks for commitment, engagement and attendance, being ambassadors in the community, engaging in their own self-assessments, recruiting their own peers (building succession for the board) and of course, fundraising. Interestingly, this national study mirrored my informal responses from southeast Michigan.
[The full report can be downloaded here ]
If you think about it, many of us have professions that require continuing education classes annually so we can continue to be at the top of our games. However, to be a nonprofit board member you can just move from one board to the next, year after year, with no training. You might have no idea what it means to be a good board member, what the best practices are today for boards or what the IRS and others are suggesting supports quality governance and transparency yet you could be responsible for oversight of thousands or millions of donor dollars.
Board Members Ask Yourself a Question
As a board member myself, I try to focus on how I can add value. How do I add value to the board and how do I add value to the executive director? Showing up to a meeting once a month, signing a conflict of interest statement, and writing a $100 check every year is not the behavior of quality board member in my opinion. I also focus on avoiding micromanaging but I embrace my role as gatekeeper of the mission with the oversight requirements necessary.
The BoardSource Index also reported that 70% of nonprofit boards now have term limits. I am a firm believer in terms limits, but that is a story for an entire other blog on another day. However, when I join a board and I know that I have six years maximum to provide service I ask my self this question. “When I leave this board in six years can I leave knowing I left the nonprofit and board in a better position than when I got there?” If I can’t, I think long and hard about accepting the volunteer role. Being a board member today involves some heavy lifting if you take the role seriously.
Diana Kern is the Vice President at Nonprofit Enterprise at Work. Diana received the Randolph W. White Memorial Award for Community Service in 2003 for her dedication to ser ving the housing community and she is a certified trainer with the Institute of Real Estate Management. Feel free to contact Diana regarding any of the advice, tools or services mentioned in this post by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at 734-998-0160 extension 230
NEW’s mission is to help nonprofits succeed by strengthening nonprofit management and offering solutions to issues facing our nonprofit community.
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