5 protips from our “Demystifying Board Service” workshop
Last night, members of our YW Boston supporter network were treated to an expert look inside the often obscure world of nonprofit board service. LeadBoston alumni Carl Metzger, Partner & Chair of Risk Management Practice at Goodwin, and Jeff Katz, an independent nonprofit consultant, addressed how to be a savvy and effective board member, from evaluating board service opportunities to knowing when it’s time to step off a board. Here are five of their top protips!
1. Look before you leap.
Being on a nonprofit board is a big responsibility. In order to protect yourself and make sure you are serving the best interests of the organization, it is critical that you do some research on the organization before agreeing to serve. Have conversations with current board members, and ask to see key documents like the organization’s Form 990 (a charitable organization’s financial disclosure) and a prospective board member packet. Here are the key questions to ask yourself before joining:
- Do I believe in the organization’s mission?
- Do I understand how the organization operates?
- How does the board select members?
- Are there term limits for board members?
- Is the organization financially troubled, or has it attracted litigation or investigations in the past?
If you have concerns about any of these questions, make sure you get a satisfactory answer before making a decision to join the board.
2. Think about what you add.
Nonprofit boards are most effective when they have a diversity of representation. This includes race, gender, age, professional background, and even personal level of involvement with the organization’s mission. For example, if all of the board members of a nonprofit health center had been patients at the center, the board could tend toward micromanaging and spending its time on considerations below a strategic level. But, if none of the board members had received care at the health center, the board would be unlikely to have deep understanding of the organization and its mission, and would be less able to advise the organization well.
Think about your interest and background, and how you can contribute to the board. Communicate this in your conversations with the Board Chair, and you can set yourself up well to be a highly effective board member.
3. Show up, and ask questions.
As simple as it sounds, attending board meetings is a critical part of a board member’s job, and one that can be surprisingly challenging for busy professionals who want to serve as board members. One of the biggest complaints heard from board members is that other members are not showing up.
Maximize the value of your attendance by reading all of the material (which should not be sent to you the night before the board meeting!), and then asking strategic questions. A big part of your job as a board member is just to ask intelligent questions. If you receive an answer that sounds at all suspect, you have a duty to make sure you get an answer that works for you.
4. Know your duties.
In addition to showing up and actively participating in meetings, board members have what are called fiduciary duties to the board. By definition, fiduciary duties are “the highest standard of care and obligate you to act solely in the interest of another.” For a nonprofit board, you owe these duties to the organization, its mission, and the public. These duties include:
- The duty of care; you have to be careful and doing your job diligently.
- The duty of being informed; you should be aware of and informed about every major action the charity takes.
- The duty of advising the organization; you’re not expected to be an expert in every subject, but you are expected to make sure the board is getting expert advice.
- The duty of loyalty; you are expected to put the interests of the organization ahead of your own interests.
Make sure you understand your financial obligation to the organization as well. Some boards require you to make a donation, and/or acquire a donation from others (known as a “give/get” board). Other boards expect you to contribute work, or “sweat equity,” not just financial equity.
A terrific resource for understanding the role and responsibility of serving on a board is the “Guide for Board Members of Charitable Organizations” published by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.
5. Remember that you have one employee.
Many issues that arise in nonprofit management can come from poor boundaries at the leadership level. The board should govern the organization, the executive director should manage it, and the staff should implement the work. Board members should not be managing staff at the project level, but should focus on holding the executive director accountable. A positive rapport between the ED and the board is important, but at the end of the day remember that the ED is your employee first and foremost.
Thank you to Carl, Jeff, and our other presenters last night for a very informative evening!