How to Navigate Being a New Nonprofit Board Member

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How to Navigate Being a New Nonprofit Board Member

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Jamie Bearse

I brought in a board member to a nonprofit and, within the first month, this person demanded the organization dramatically narrow the types of constituents served. At other times, I had board members who literally did nothing to prepare or serve — preferring to have board reports read to them. Another time, a board member had his assistant pretend to be him for a media interview.

Navigating the relationship between nonprofit boards and staff can be extraordinarily challenging. More than we realize, there are nonprofit staffers who feel powerless and frustrated because of the behavior of their board members. They negotiate a narrow channel of motivating members on one side and fearing retribution from board members on the other.

But if you’re looking at an organization as a ship, then the board of directors must be both steering (providing subject-matter expertise) and rowing (doing the work) in order to help the causes succeed. Joining a nonprofit board is exciting. Those selected have been entrusted to be role models for the community that organizations are empowering to make a difference in the world.

Here are four practical tips in being a high-performing and effective board member from day No. 1.

1. Understand the Role and Its Responsibilities

For many people who are new to leadership positions, there is a need to be the smartest person in the room or to bring an overboard sense of command to the position. Overreaching is one of the most common issues in building nonprofits.

At its core, a board is responsible for:

  • The care of the organization’s assets, which include its people and reputation.
  • Ensuring that transactions are advancing the mission (budget and auditing).
  • Executing good governance by following the law and the organization’s bylaws, calling out conflicts of interest, and giving proper and regular review of the CEO or executive director’s performance.

Don’t insist you know everything about a topic, like technology, and tell the organization it must use your favorite vendor.

Do share your knowledge, experience and perspective but allow and support staff to do its job with the plans written and the vendors selected.

2. Build Relationships

Cultivating positive relationships with fellow board members, staff, volunteers and donors is essential for achieving common goals. Alignment, clarity of communication and collaboration are key elements in maximizing the board’s overall effectiveness. Networking and advocating for the organization can help raise a nonprofit’s profile, attract support and cultivate valuable partnerships. Fundraising and relationship-building are forever entwined in the nonprofit world.

While some board members may need time and practice to warm to the idea of securing funds, building relationships and promoting the nonprofit to their circles of friends and contacts by sharing successes and objectives, this needs to start on day No. 1.

Don’t wait until board meetings to talk to other board members and staff.

Do ask if there are donors you can call to thank. That allows you to meet new people with a very positive topic and it dramatically increases the chance the donor gives again.

3. Honor Your Commitments

Don’t under-deliver or over-promise. Be diligent in fulfilling obligations, whether it’s preparing for and attending meetings, serving on committees or completing assigned tasks. By demonstrating reliability and follow-through, you will contribute to a smooth-functioning board, and instill confidence in fellow board members and the staff.

Board members have a powerful influence on the staff. When they show they are invested in the cause through action, almost nothing is as empowering. When they don’t show up and someone needs to fill a gap, it can be deflating.

Don’t be the person who promises celebrities will show up to events while constantly answering your phone — with the ringtone being “Move aside and let the man go through.” — during board meetings. (This is a true story from my nonprofit career.)

Do take on responsibility that’s within your bandwidth and capacity, and report back with your results.

4. Seek Out the Voice That’s Not in the Room

A 2021 BoardSource report, “Leading With Intent: Reviewing the State of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion on Nonprofit Boards,” found that 62% of nonprofit CEOs did not believe their nonprofit’s board demographics reflected those of the population the organization serves. By seeking out voices that are not traditionally represented, boards can tap into a wealth of unique insights and ideas, including:

  • Enhanced discussions that can bring new perspectives and information to light and encourage a thorough analysis.
  • More accurate reflection of the communities they serve to create more credibility and invite more diverse stakeholders and beneficiaries of the organization.
  • Mitigated bias in decision-making by challenging assumptions and uncovering blind spots in favor of more balanced approaches.

Don’t assume the board and the organization’s leadership knows all of the answers.

Do openly ask if there are perspectives not seen or heard on the board that need to be sought out.

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