Board Development

Three Things We Can Do Right Now To Be Better Board Members

This blog post was originally published by Giving Tree Associates.

In April, Alicia Oberman and I tackled the changing nature of the nonprofit board’s role during our webinar entitled “Did I Sign Up for This? Reimagining the Board’s Role in Unprecedented Times.” In order to prepare for the session, I put some thoughts to paper (so to speak) to push you to think about a very complex issue. Before I offer a refresher on the four basic areas of board responsibility and relate them to our new reality, I have to vent for a second:

I have to admit that I am surprised by many boards’ lack of action. I almost hope this statement offends you and causes you to comment below, because I want there to be more boards and board members that prove me wrong. Yet so many of the board leaders with whom I have spoken in recent weeks feel they are bearing the emotional burden of the COVID-19 economy without the support, strategic thinking, and overt concern of their board peers. The professionals are clearly “freaking out” and there are only a handful of board members sweating it out alongside them. Why? Why aren’t the boards freaking out too? 

While I am hardly suggesting that a chaotic, haphazard, highly emotional approach to this challenge is called for, an acknowledgment that this is not business as usual is essential. Therefore, the board must function in a more proactive, planful, strategic, supportive way than ever before. This will likely mean more meetings, a revised budget for FY ‘20-’21, and new strategies to achieve financial goals, including the possibility of cutting expenses and raising more money. I’d love to see more board members taking on the hard conversations about what we can do to stay afloat and reaching out to donors to steward key relationships. Ok – I’m done venting. Now, moving on to the refresher…  

The board of a nonprofit organization is its governing body. Strong boards work as a team for the benefit of the nonprofit and in partnership with staff who run the day-to-day operations of the organization. My colleague on the Giving Tree team, Tina Herpe, explained it best when she outlined the responsibilities of a nonprofit board from a legal perspective. They fall into four categories:

  • Duty of Care: Board members are expected to actively participate in organizational planning and decision-making and to make sound and informed judgments. This includes oversight of the organization’s assets to ensure sustainability and development of organizational goals and policies that are in line with its mission.
  • Duty of Loyalty: When acting on behalf of the organization, board members must put the interests of the nonprofit before any personal or professional concerns and avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
  • Duty of Obedience: Board members must ensure that the organization complies with all applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations as well as its own bylaws and policies. It must be committed to its established mission. 
  • Duty of Transparency: Boards should ensure that an organization operates with a degree of transparency by disclosing income and expenses as well as general information about its purpose and programs. 

So, what best practices can we employ as the board works to keep the nonprofit afloat during a global pandemic?

1. Be an ambassador

Each board member must see themselves as a personal ambassador for the organization to enhance public standing and attract new supporters. Never before has this been more critical. The board is the main link between an organization and the general public and therefore each board member should be able to clearly state the impact this crisis has on the organization’s ability to pursue its mission. It’s time for board members (many of whom have not had the time or know-how in the past) to share the organization’s story on their personal social media accounts. Board members should be calling major donors to check in and share information about the organization’s current state of affairs. Therefore they need frequent updates and real stories to share in order to be good ambassadors, so I recommend frequent board briefings (every 2 weeks or so) in order to keep everyone up to date. 

2. Ensure the organization has adequate funding 

The board approves annual budgets, oversees financial management, and ensures that organizational assets are used for their intended purpose. This year, when the board approves annual fundraising plans it should be clearer than ever before about the role each member plays in meeting development goals. Not only must every board member make a personally meaningful contribution, but the board must help the organization connect with individuals, foundations and corporations who can add their support. This is especially important during a year when families and businesses, many of whom may have been generous donors in the past, may have different financial abilities. We will likely experience an unprecedented need to tap into the networks of our committed board members and staff in order to achieve fundraising goals. We’ll also likely need to make some unpleasant cuts to our expense budgets. Board members must understand and discuss various financial scenarios, both for this year and the coming year, in order to be good fiscal stewards and fundraisers.

3. Develop strategic goals and objectives

The board works in partnership with staff to develop policies, goals and measurable objectives that will guide programs, staff, fundraising and governance of the organization. If you serve as a board member for an organization whose strategic plan is out of date, now is the time to act. Both staff and standing board committees need annual and three to five-year long-range goals to identify what will be accomplished, by whom and by when. During this time of extreme uncertainty, we need a strategic plan to serve as our roadmap and compass. 

While service on a nonprofit board is an honor, it’s also a serious responsibility. And it may push us outside of our comfort zones. As my Peloton coach would say, “It’s time to get comfortable with your discomfort.” This is not business as usual.

Reach out to me directly if you’d like to talk further about your board and how you can best position them for success.