Mastering the Art of Nonprofit Board Governance

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Ask many people who work or serve on a nonprofit board and a lot of times you’re going to hear a consistent theme. Often, board members don’t have a thorough understanding about how to adequately serve on a nonprofit board, and unfortunately, many organizations don’t have the resources to hire trainers to help people with good intentions to become effective leaders.

The reality is that serving well on a nonprofit board is a bit of an art and indeed a privilege that comes with responsibilities, including legal and regulatory obligations. Board members should always view themselves as a representative of the community and a bridge to the nonprofit organization where you serve. Because board members are considered to have a special status and position when they help lead nonprofits, they should be aware of what not to do to ensure they are performing appropriately.

  • Serving Is Not a Hobby: Serving on a nonprofit board can have benefits for board members because people meet like-minded peers. For instance, you may well encounter individuals who will help you in your career or business as you develop new relationships with them during meetings and events. However, it’s always important to remember that the main reason you’re serving on a board is that although there are soft benefits that could potentially come with the role, your primary focus has got to be to provide the charity with your time, talent and money. Serving on a nonprofit board is a serious responsibility and requires commitment and attention to ensure that you’re bringing your “A game” to the cause.
  • It’s Not Just About the Mission: Every organization should focus on the mission, of course, but it’s not only about the cause. It is essential for board members to be fluent and conversant on the mission, vision, statistics, facts, stories and strategic plan of the organization. The mission is just one element of the whole picture, and board members should understand it at a high level, primarily when they are engaged with others outside of the organization. When board members go out to meet with donors and prospects, the executive director or a fundraiser typically accompanies them. Team members can explain, give details and provide more color to the words and conversations of a board member, but each board leader should work to be fluent enough about the organization and its work to be able to participate in a substantive discussion.
  • Don’t Leave Nonprofit Policy to Chance: Board members are responsible for ensuring the development, implementation, and adherence to organizational policies. We live in a world of transparency, and it’s simple in the digital age for something that can be well-intentioned to get out of hand–and not in a good way. In other words, people can be quick to judge and pile on when they see something that has become a viral issue of some kind. The best defense for any situation is a great offense. Board members have a responsibility for ensuring that management and appropriate organizational advisors in law and financial management prepare documentation that is reviewed and updated as needed annually. The policy documents that are essential for any nonprofit business include donor privacy, email retention, whistleblower, conflict of interest, document destruction, discrimination and sexual harassment policies.
  • There is No Free Ride: The reality is that carrying out an organization’s mission and the work it does in its programs takes money. It’s also necessary to hire the most talented individuals to ensure that a team can adequately plan and execute the required work. That means money is a necessity for any nonprofit. Board members have a legal and fiduciary responsibility to the organization where they serve. They must ensure that a nonprofit has the resources it needs to complete its mission, and one of the most significant needs a nonprofit has is money. Therefore, board members should understand that there should be 100% board commitment to annual giving based on the financial capacity of each board member. Those who have higher means can give more and one of the best rules to use for board fundraising is “give or get,” which means you give it from your pocket or you raise it from others. Board members need to be aware that donors (particularly institutional funders) ask about board donations and if you can’t demonstrate board commitment to the cause, why should anyone else want to give?
  • Micro-Management Does Not Work: Key aspects of work by board members is to oversee the overall strategy and planning, ensuring of resources, approving of organizational budgets, alignment to the mission of the organization’s programs and services and executive director performance. What the board should not be doing is micro-managing an organization, second-guessing the executive director or management team or getting involved with routine staffing issues. Let’s look at it another way; when businesses have company boards, members understand that they have a role for oversight and governance. They do not work in the day-to-day affairs of the corporation. Nonprofits are businesses, and board members should understand that unless they are dealing with a crisis, their role is for governance and oversight and not to get into the management details and operations of the organization–that’s the role of management.
  • Orientation and Board Assessments Are Not Sidebars: One of the essential activities that any board should do is to reflect a mirror on itself. It begins by having new board members undergo an orientation, either individually as they join or as part of an annual board orientation so that they can understand good governance. Let’s face it; most people are not experts on nonprofit roles and responsibilities of the board. If you want your charity to grow and develop into a sustaining organization, it begins with leadership at the top. You have to orient board members on their responsibilities with the board and also their assigned committees. And, more broadly, it’s essential to have an annual board meeting that assesses the performance of the board. Organizations should budget a consultant or facilitator with coming to work with them once a year to evaluate board performance, which is often done during a board retreat and with tools that include surveys, workshops and other assessment, training and evaluation tools.

Non-profit board members all have different reasons for serving a given group. Of course, there should always be a passion and interest in the mission and work done by the charity. It should never be assumed that board members will know or understand their work. Nonprofit leaders have a responsibility to ensure that they have a properly working organization and if the chairperson of the board is not speaking about proper board governance, then executive directors should not be timid and must bring up the topic.

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