Last week I led a class for the Board Development Academy hosted by the Center for Nonprofit Excellence in Charlottesville, VA. The Board Development Academy is for engaged community leaders, people either early on in their board careers or those who have never been on a board, who want to learn how to effectively serve a nonprofit. During our two hours together, we shared a conversation about the opportunities and challenges of nonprofit board leadership and specific steps board leaders can take to help ensure a successful term of service.
One interesting comment came from a young professional who currently serves on a few boards in the community. We were discussing how important it is that potential board members, before they agree to serve, ask the nonprofit about their expectations. If the organization does not provide prospective board members with an outline of their expected role, it is difficult for both the board member and the organization to evaluate performance and outcomes. The potential board member should ask the nonprofit to share a list of responsibilities—both in governance and fundraising— before agreeing to serve.
This particular young professional enrolled in The Academy said our conversation had been particularly enlightening because it made him realize what a significant commitment board service requires and how much an organization relies on their board members for a variety of leadership roles. He went on to conclude it made him reconsider how many boards he should be on at one time. I found this a straightforward, yet important, statement.
In our 24 years of work with nonprofits, we have seen the most successful relationships with board members and nonprofit management are the ones that begin with a mutual understanding of expectations. Once the foundation is laid, accountability measures are easier to implement on both sides. Instead of over-committing to so many nonprofits that it becomes difficult to meet expectations, we recommend people only serve on the boards where they can be fully engaged and meet all that is asked of them. This will only lead to a sense of accomplishment and reward.
Four questions we recommend potential board members ask themselves are: Can you realistically take on what the nonprofit is asking of you? Can you make this particular nonprofit one of your top three or four philanthropic priorities while serving? Are you comfortable fundraising for more than one nonprofit at a time if you are already serve on the board of another organization? Do you feel confident at the end of your term you will have accomplished what is being asked of you as a board member? If you can’t answer these questions affirmatively, you are only doing a disservice to yourself and the nonprofit by agreeing to join the board. Remember, there are many other ways to give back and make a difference at a nonprofit until you have the ability and capacity to serve for a set number of years. Capital campaigns need leadership committees, annual events need hosts, most any organization needs volunteers, and all nonprofits appreciate a donation to their annual fund.