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How to Be an Excellent Not-For-Profit Board Member

A few weeks ago, some friends and I were discussing our experiences on not-for-profit boards.

That conversation brought to mind a newsletter we did several years ago on how to be an excellent not-for-profit board member.
We have updated and renewed our thoughts and hope it’s helpful for you. If you have advice to add from your experiences, please drop me a line and I will pass it along.

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Get on Board:
10 Top Tips to Effectively Guide Not-For-Profits

You may have a resume with decades of not-for-profit board service.

You may be a newcomer to boards -- like a young friend of mine recently asked to serve on a not-for-profit organization board for the first time.

Or, with varied new not-for-profits constantly seeking fresh leadership, you may suddenly face unexpected challenges in new board work.

Whatever your case, it’s important to make the most of your contribution to any not-for-profit’s board of directors – to best serve that organization and to increase your satisfaction. Offered here are 10 suggestions from my experience as a board member for many organizations and from my consulting work with dozens of not-for-profits over the years.

say yes wunderlin1. Say yes … only if you mean “YES!” Don’t agree to join a board without a reality check about your commitment. If a charity near and dear to your heart asks you to lead its capital campaign over the next three years, and you are in a job that requires travel three days a week, you are not likely to be able to be successful. If an organization would like you to ask your manager to support a grant request, but you know that would not be good for your standing at work, don’t say “yes.” If you are already on several boards and pressed for time in your life, be honest and admit your limitations. Organization leaders have told me repeatedly they would far prefer to get a “no” upfront. When weighing time commitments, beware of promises that board service won’t be taxing… “just two hours to meet every two months.” On most boards that’s just the beginning. Mature organizations may have policy boards that entail substantial committee work. Other boards -- startup organization, for example -- may be short on staff and expect help with everything from publicity to painting. Here’s some excellent research from on board member time commitments

2. Get to know the organization well. Once you join a board, get a 360-degree view of the organization’s operations. If there is a robust orientation for all board members, take advantage of it. Make sure you understand and can articulate its mission and vision. Read their website. Read meeting minutes. Do a Google search of news stories. And get experience: Take a tour. Volunteer. Teach Kentucky, an organization on whose board I serve, has a mentoring program for new teachers. I learned a lot in that role, seeing first-hand Tyler’s and Devon’s triumphs and challenges teaching in difficult classroom settings while studying for their master’s degrees. It has made me a more effective and empathetic board member. With more experience, we all bring more insight into decision-making.

3. Be a strong advocate. One of your key jobs: to help tell the organization’s story to the community. So look for examples that vividly reflect the mission and impact of the non-profit you serve – and share them with your work colleagues, golf partners, extended family and friends. Also, consider asking the executive director or president to meet friends or speak to groups you know. Write a letter to the editor if your organization or its mission relate to the news of the day. If you are active on Facebook or Twitter, use those social media and more to spread word of events and success stories. At the very least go to your organizations’ pages and “Like” them!

volunteer4. It may be a volunteer role – but the work is not optional. As hard as it is to accept, once we make a volunteer commitment, that organization is relying on us. If you commit to being on the education committee, it is your responsibility to come prepared to committee meetings. It is not a meeting you go to if there isn’t anything else on your calendar. If you commit to making three fundraising contacts, it’s important that you follow through.

5. Know your job and stick to it. For most not-for-profits, boards have three essential roles: hire, manage and evaluate the senior executive; set the strategic future direction for the organization; and ensure sound financial stewardship of the organization. It is important to understand how your organization defines its governance: What are the board’s responsibilities? The management’s? The staff’s?

6. Your skills are their assets. Non-profits are best served when we contribute expertise and knowledge. A board on which I once served had a commercial real estate developer heading its facilities committee. His knowledge of building costs, the bid process, and environmental concerns make an invaluable contribution to that organization. A communications-and-marketing consultant played a key role as a board member as her organization changed its name and branding. When it comes to business skills, some MBA programs are encouraging not-for-profit board service as a way to apply new skills. It’s also important to bring your professional skills of managing meetings so they are productive, says David Simms, a partner in the Bridgespan Group.

7. Expand your skills. Boards can also provide opportunities to volunteer in new areas -- to add knowledge and experience. If the board is sufficiently strong, you may be able to branch out and learn some new skills. If you are a finance person, branch out: try your hand at PR, personnel or special events. The first full out strategic plan I ever did was for the Junior League of Louisville in 1982.

fundraising image8. Money matters. Recognize that fundraising is a responsibility – and increasingly important in today’s climate. Alnoor Ebrahim, faculty chair of Governing for Nonprofit Excellence at Harvard Business School, said in a recent Forbes interview that many agencies still face decreased funding from the economic downturn – “yet there is very high demand for their most basic services including meals and food pantries, shelter, health care, and job training. Not surprisingly, boards are under pressure to step up.” If you join a board, it’s essential to step up.

You need to contribute to the annual fund – and not wait to be asked. It is not a matter of how much you give, as much as that you participate. Potential corporate donors expect 100 percent board participation in development. Even if you hate to ask other people for money yourself, you can help by identifying prospects and making introductions. You can participate in phone blitzes and review grants. You can get your company to buy a table at a fundraising event.

9. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Some people collect board memberships like scalps on a belt. You can’t possibly devote the right amount of energy and time if you are on five boards. So say, “yes” to the boards that are most important to you. Then serve with passion. Say, “thanks,” but “no thanks” to the others.

10. Rotate off. Not-for-profit organizations benefit from refreshing and renewing themselves. Staggered term limits provide boards with a balance of continuity and new blood. If the board you join doesn’t have or administer term limits, consider setting a limit yourself. After a couple two- or three-year terms, make way for new ideas and new insights. If you aren’t exhausted when you leave the board, you will be receptive to helping the organization and serving as its advocate.

One of the best contributions you can make: Recommend some smart, committed new people who can jump in as volunteers and become strong new board members to keep the cycle going.

Three helpful resources
A comprehensive guide with detailed information on topics from choosing consultants, managing risk, handling ethical issues.

Free Management Library
From bylaws to board policies, a wide array of well-organized information.

To read more about the Center for Nonprofit Excellence
This organization offers a month-long orientation to board work as well as shorter presentations to groups and businesses.


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