By Trish Thomas
Inspiring action, igniting change, networking and giving back to the community… these are common incentives driving individuals to serve on non-profit boards.
As a participant on many non-profit boards and advisory boards, I consider my service to be a much more powerful asset than my money. But before you step out to join a board or recruit new members for an existing board, it is critical that you understand your obligations and the key factors that foster highly-successful boards.
Because non-profit board members are not compensated and profits aren’t the primary goal, it’s easy to believe that board
service is a pleasant endeavor that will let you contribute to your passion and make new friends. But board seats are a deep responsibility and a job that requires serious care and attention.
Beyond the general duties of care and loyalty, the immense possibilities of a non-profit board are unleashed by assembling the
right mix of members and ensuring that they work together in the boardroom. Here are some organizational and personal characteristics to consider as you build a board or select a board to join:
Choose people who understand and advocate for the mission. One of the key tasks of boards is to build community awareness and raise the stature of the organization. Directors are not equipped to do this if they don’t align with the cause at a deep, personal level.
Don’t overload the board. Determine a manageable number of individuals that will be active and contribute in tangible ways. Not every large donor should be given a seat on the board. Advisory boards or founders committees can be a great way to honor and leverage friends of the organization without wasting board seats. I find that boards of ten or less can overwhelm members with work, but huge boards make it hard to hold fair and complete discussions in meetings. Find the right size for maximum effectiveness and fill seats wisely.
Be sure the board has the right goal in mind. Some boards need to be "working" boards with all members volunteering significant time. Some boards need to raise funds through sponsored events and capital campaigns, so they need directors with fat checkbooks. And some boards may be focused on capacity building or improving governance. The focus of each board should be driven by the organization’s needs.
Every solid board needs to have financial acumen built in. There should be financially astute members who are knowledgeable and willing to serve on finance and audit committees. But beyond that, every single director should understand how to read financial statements, ask hard questions, and be fully engaged in financial and strategic planning.
Find board members who are eager to participate within the organization. Money is great, and every board member should give annually, but it is more important that energy, connections and expertise are on the table. Willingness to take the time and effort to understand strategic, financial and operational issues, engage personally with the staff and activities, and stay current on sound governance principles are all ingredients for success.
Build diversity into the board. A wide range of individuals of varying genders, ancestry, incomes, ages and levels of connection to the organization are crucial. Blending experienced directors with new additions to the boardroom helps mix best practices with enthusiasm. It is also helpful to have some people in the room who are neither large donors nor recipients of services because they bring external perspective. In my service as the chair of The Women’s Wilderness Institute board, one of our primary champions on the board is male. Gary is deeply committed to the cause and his unique ideas and skills are pivotal to the board performing well. A board with all female directors would not serve the organization as well as a gender-balanced board.
Understand each board member’s drivers and ensure that they are coming to the board for the right reasons. If everyone’s
objectives are clear from day one, the board will have a stronger and more effective dynamic than if directors’ interests are at odds and taint the board. For example, if a member is on the staff of another non-profit and hopes to see the two organizations
partner, that is fine. But the entire board needs to be aware of their intention up front to preserve transparency and goodwill.
Collegiality matters! I’ve seen stellar people break down boards because they can’t work and play with others. The ability to
collaborate well and show respect for the ideas and views of fellow board members and staff should be a highly prized trait on a board; as well as the understanding that boards operate as a body not as individuals.
At a non-profit there is so much at stake! For starters, the very cause of the organization is on the line, as is its survival. That
is actually a higher ethical directive than just ensuring that a corporation’s bottom-line is trending up. A non-profit board not only provides governance and safeguards the organization’s mission, the board also takes responsibility for capacity building, sustainability and fundraising.
By treating board service as the valuable and serious commitment that it is, you can unlock the possibilities of the boardroom
and gather people in effort and equality to accomplish great things - ultimately making a powerful positive impact on your community and the world.
Trish currently serves on boards for the Better Business Bureau, the Deming Center for Entrepreneurship at CU Boulder, the University of Denver Women's College, The Womens Wilderness Institute, The Family Garden and The Other Side of Everest Educational Foundation. She is a thought leader who delights in sharing knowledge, connections and inspiration, as well as acting as an innovator, optimist and protagonist who empowers people to change the world.