How To Be A Great Board Member—And Avoid Being A Not So Great One

There’s only one good reason to join a board. And that’s because you want the organization to succeed in its mission. Fortunately for you, there are some great missions out there.

What makes a good nonprofit board member? Being able to nail all your responsibilities to help the organization succeed. Here, we’ll be talking about those responsibilities within a governing board. We won’t be going into a working board.

A main difference between the two board types is that a working board is expected to do volunteer activities that staff would normally do. If your board is a governing board, then those types of tasks are infrequent. And when those tasks are present, you’re being overseen by staff. Both board types are responsible for governance.

Both board types are also responsible for fundraising and giving, but there tends to be extra focus on these aspects with a governance board. Working boards help to act as a filler for labor until there’s staff. But once staff is present, the board sticks to just governing and focusing on the organization’s financial security.

For both board types, it’s reasonable to expect ten hours of your time per month, on average. But this will vary by organization and by your position on the board.

Now let’s talk about your responsibilities within a governing board and what steps you can take to join a nonprofit board if you’re not one already.

Work That Network & Advocate

Your network will be one of the most important assets you provide to your organization. If you have connections that will benefit the nonprofit you’re serving for, then you need to share them. And merely having a network and keeping it to yourself won’t be useful. Not sure what people would be good to introduce? Ask a senior board member or the executive director.

Now you know which parts of your network are useful. You can introduce them to the chair or senior staff. These individuals may be connections within organizations the nonprofit may collaborate with or connections to prospective funding areas. They could also be people who can provide advice or solve problems that the organization is currently seeking to address. And be sure that your introduction includes how the connection is beneficial and that both people know each other’s backgrounds.

You may be one of those folks who thinks you don’t really have a network. Fortunately, networks are not static. You can build one. Think about the types of people your organization would benefit from knowing. What events do those people attend? Go to those events. This may mean volunteering to table for the organization at a conference. Are they in certain online communities? Go to those communities. Can you reach out to them by some other means? Go reach out to them.

Networking also means sharing the organization’s mission. A nonprofit may have a set presentation that it provides board members. Board members are evangelists for the nonprofit’s cause.

Note that I said board members are evangelists for the nonprofit’s cause. This means that when you’re networking on the nonprofit’s behalf, keep your message uniform with the nonprofit’s strategy. This isn’t the time to insert your personal opinion. You can stay within this boundary and personalize your message at the same time.

When done well, spreading the nonprofit’s message is exciting. With all the practice, you’ll get used to it quickly.

Have Productive Meetings

You’ll have board meetings at a set time throughout the year. Four plus or minus two is common. At these meetings you’ll go over the previous agendas, financials, and anything that needs to be voted on, according to your governance documents. The meetings could be virtual or in person depending on the nonprofit.

You’ll want to be prepared for these meetings and on time. There’s no clearer way to put a bad foot forward than to miss board meetings that are scheduled in advance, particularly if it’s done without notice. A multiple offense here is typically grounds for getting voted off the board. The governing documents may well take you off the board automatically. The board will expect you to be organized enough so that this is never an issue. We live in the age of Google Calendar, so the board’s expectations are well in line.

Meetings are also where the board votes whether to approve new budgets and strategic plans. Much of that discussion will take place before the board meeting in e-mail and other correspondence with the board and staff. It’s that early discussion and preparation that makes board meetings go smoothly.

Outside of these regular meetings are special meetings. Special meetings are when the board has some pressing matter to vote on before a regularly scheduled meeting. Some boards also have retreats. These are often during a weekend where the board will participate in strategy sessions, skill trainings, and team building. These retreats can also be really fun and rewarding.

Make your meetings awesome.

Be A Rockstar Committee Member

Committees represent a formal framework for organized work that the board does. These include tasks like evaluating the executive director, the board itself, and programs. Policy evaluation, board training, and recruitment are other topics that a standing board committee may have. There may also be temporary committees that do a single task called ad hoc committees. These might be for things like hiring a new executive director or deciding where to relocate the organization’s headquarters.

Each committee typically has its own chair to organize and delegate the work. You’ll want to be responsive so as to not create any bottlenecks within your committee. These committees will have meetings as well.

Those initial meetings will clarify and delegate the responsibilities outlined in a committee charter. It’s good practice for the board to vote on the committee charter alongside the committee’s formation to clarify the committee’s powers, duties, members, and general parameters. The committee will typically meet to finalize any work product or to make a recommendation to the rest of the board. Committees are there for efficiency so that the entire board isn’t bombarded with every nuance of the board’s duties.

Be Responsive & Engaged

Other board members and staff should be respectful of your time with the frequency and importance of e-mails and overall communication. That said, don’t ghost the board or senior staff either. A board member who is unresponsive to others for significant periods of time should not expect to have their position on the board for very long.

Clearly, not every e-mail will require your input, but you need to be involved when they do. Some newer board members may get a deer-in-the-headlights feeling if they don’t know what to do or are asked to do a task within an area where they have self-doubts. That nervousness is okay as long as it isn’t paralyzing.

Instead of freezing, seek out help from another strong board member. The chair or even the executive director is often a good fit here. This can also be a good time for seeking resources about the task at hand. When seeking help, the person you’re talking to will likely appreciate you taking these information-seeking steps already.

Advise Wisely

As a board member, you’re also asked to provide advice to the rest of the board and staff. The executive director is normally the go-between for the board and staff. This advice can be through formal processes such as committees or it could be through direct communication.

There’s also a difference between advising and telling staff what to do. If an individual board member begins telling staff what to do, then this can create serious issues. The board’s duty is to set the organization’s overall mission and to hire a good executive director to manage the staff who accomplish that mission. Technically, the board as a whole may vote to direct staff, but this is extremely risky. It risks micromanaging and outright forfeiting the relationship with staff.

Whatever the case, no individual board member should ever be directing staff. And if there’s a case where an individual board member disagrees with the board itself, staff, or the organization, then the board member must resolve this internally. Publicly airing disagreements is not only unprofessional, but it undermines the organization’s cohesiveness. This inappropriate behavior is also an easy way to get voted right off a board — and rightfully so.

Give good advice. Don’t tell staff what to do. And be professional when not all of your advice is taken. You’ll be golden.

Recruit Like A Champ

Board size will vary based on the organization. Once an organization takes on a governing board, you can expect to see more members, likely 5–15. Aiming for around ten allows the board to reliably delegate tasks within committees while also allowing the board to fulfill its remaining duties. If the organization has a board with over nine seats, it may be time to consider an executive committee, which is a committee that can act without the entire board’s approval with the exception of certain kinds of votes.

Who do you look for to fill all those seats? Often a board has a board contract or some form of expectations document. Any board recruit must be able to fulfill those duties. Most of those duties are likely outlined in this article.

If you see that certain groups are not well-represented on your board, then it will benefit you to seek out members within those groups. This isn’t just to maintain a positive public image. Diversifying your board (in a number of ways) will increase the breadth of your organization’s network and increase its ability to serve the entire population it seeks to benefit.

The board may also have a need gap. Having someone with a high understanding of nonprofits is always good. Those skillsets are particularly beneficial for those on track for a chair or vice-chair role (a vice-chair, like certain other officer positions, can be optional).

The chair and vice-chair must be able to set a strong example and hold other board members accountable. The chair especially facilitates a strong link between the executive director and the board. Both these positions are generally ones to grow into, but it’s good to spot those skillsets when recruiting.

Accounting may be another skill gap. This is essential for the treasurer role, even though the treasurer themselves is not expected to do the day-to-day accounting. Attorneys are also helpful. Even while not providing direct counsel, an attorney board member can help a nonprofit steer clear of otherwise invisible legal landmines. Other good people may be connections to other stakeholder organizations like previous employees or board members.

And, of course, anyone you recruit must be highly passionate about your nonprofit’s mission.

Give At Your Capacity

Some may look at a giving requirement and say that the nonprofit only wants them to serve because of their money. To that, I have two answers:

First, that person has either ignored or is ignorant of their other responsibilities. Serving on a nonprofit board involves much more than your checkbook.

Second, you need to be passionate about the organization you’re serving for. If you’re not willing to prioritize them in your giving during your term on the board, then you’re not passionate enough to be serving. This means giving at your capacity while on the board. If giving at your capacity means giving the minimum requirement, then that’s fine. But if you have greater capacity, then you need to be giving more.

By giving at your capacity, you’re communicating that you genuinely care about the organization’s mission. And you recognize that the organization needs funds to carry out its mission. Even if an organization has external funds, it’s important to diversify funding and have unrestricted funds that can be used for future years. A financially secure organization has reserve funding.

Further, leading by example with giving will go a long way with your fundraising. Many donors explicitly ask about a board’s giving, and you need to be able to give a positive answer. Describing how you prioritize your own giving has a big impact when you’re asking someone else to give.

It may be that you honestly do not have the capacity to give at the minimum expected level asked by the nonprofit. If that’s the case, it may not be the right time for you to serve. You may even need to step back from your position until you have more financial security. (Note that if this is the option you choose, resigning from a board is generally not something you spring on everyone. Talk with the ED or chair first so that there is an action plan in place, particularly if you have an officer role or lead a committee.)

If you see this personal finance issue ahead of time during your tenure, then you should bring it up as early as possible so you can problem solve a solution. If you’re open early on about the issue and are responsive about taking mitigating measures, some boards may be flexible. They may let someone donate on your behalf making up your contribution. Or, they may ask that you give what you’re able and make up the remainder within a period of time in the following year (in addition to that following year’s responsibilities).

One approach you can’t take, however, is silently ignoring your giving obligation and then trying to make excuses after the end of the year. This is yet one more easy way to get voted off a board. A strong board will not and should not tolerate this.

Give proudly and openly. You’re helping your organization, and it feels damn amazing.

Fundraise To Fuel The Organization

For new board members, this can be a scary one — asking people for money. Fortunately, many nonprofits will offer trainings on effective fundraising. You should take notes and direct action on what these trainings advise. You’ll also find no shortage of sources online and books you can buy on how to fundraise as a board member.

Like any other responsibility as a board member, if you’re not sure how to do something, ask. You’ll do yourself no favors as you let months go by. That’s a recipe for failure.

Sure, you can get some quick donations from your friends and family with a quick ask. But that amount is unlikely to be significant. Significant fundraising requires cultivation over time. Cultivation means pursuing promising connections and nurturing those relationships. Connect with those people and share the nonprofit’s successes and challenges. If you do not have those leads, go find them.

If you’re lucky and your nonprofit is organized, you may also be assigned prospective donors. These are individuals with capacity who care or would likely care about the organization’s cause. It’s your job to be an ambassador for them. Keep the organization in their mind. Learn about their interests. Ask them their thoughts about the organization and the cause area. And when the time is right, ask them for a meaningful gift. This may mean doing the ask yourself, or if the ask is particularly large, alongside another board member or staff.

Many of us have different feelings and backgrounds concerning money. That’s understandable. But you need to conceptualize money in a specific way.

You believe in the organization. You give to them with your own money because you know that your nonprofit uses that money wisely. It will use that money to advance its mission and achieve the outcomes that you value. You and the people you’re talking with want to see those same goals achieved.

You’re not begging them. And they are not “doing you a favor.”

You’re doing them a favor.

You’re giving them the opportunity to advance an important mission that they care about. They advance that mission by giving it fuel. And that fuel is called money.

Different organizations’ missions are tied to money to differing degrees. That is, some organizations see heavy diminishing returns after a certain dollar amount. Maybe it’s $100K or maybe it’s $100M. The degree of financial dependency will vary from organization. But the constant is that all organizations need money. And it is part of your job to help it get that money.

Excite others and ask them to give. Fuel your organization.

Get A Foot In The Door

There are a lot of great causes out there. I can appreciate that having served on a board myself and having started and grown two nonprofits from scratch. The makeup and ability from a board plays a large role in a nonprofit’s capacity to achieve its mission.

It’s challenging work. And yet, instead of being paid, you give your money. That means that foremost, you have to love the nonprofit you’re pursuing a board position for.

Personally, being the executive director of The Center for Election Science, I’d recommend you check us out. We study and advance better voting methods to replace our current choose-one voting system. We empower voters. We give them a better tool to meaningfully elect the people who direct vast sums of your taxpayer money and execute the policy that controls our daily lives.

If that cause doesn’t speak to your core, then you should absolutely look at other nonprofits until you find one that does. Consider looking at other organizations that align with effective altruism, a cause area that uses reason and data to maximize positive impact.

Whatever the cause, once you’ve found what speaks to you, there are some actions you can take.

The organization you’re eyeing up probably has some events. You should be following their social media and signed up for their newsletter already. That’ll clue you in. Talk with their staff and other volunteers. Learn as much as you can. Are there volunteer opportunities? If so, give it a shot. It’s a good way to demonstrate you’re reliable if you can perform a task that they ask you to.

Is this an organization you can really get behind? An easy way to get an organization’s attention is to make a meaningful donation. This lets them know you have the capacity and willingness to support the organization financially. It also lets them know that you are serious about your support. Adding peer-to-peer fundraising to the mix will help even more. And giving through a donor-advised fund will earn you a hug.

Is there a board member in your area? Consider reaching out to them either via e-mail, LinkedIn, or some other medium. Get them lunch and mention that you’d like to learn more about a board role. Ask them about their experience and responsibilities. Ask them what their needs are. Let them know what you can bring to the table such as particular skills, connections, or fundraising capacity.

That’s a good way to set off on the right foot and into a rewarding experience. If the board member is interested, they may forward you on to the rest of the board. You’ll be asked to provide more information such as a resume and your ability to fulfill board responsibilities. After further vetting, the board will then vote on your approval. The timeframe for this may vary depending on the nonprofit and time of year.

Overall tips once you’re on the board? Recognize your responsibilities and set a good example. And be willing to remove underperformers from the board. While tough, that willingness to vote off underperforming board members will buffer against resentment between current and future board members. Plus, it will strengthen the organization as a whole.

Being an awesome board member is challenging. But it’s also extremely rewarding.

Good luck!

Recommended reading:

Good things to ask for once you’re being considered for a board spot:

  • Governance documents
  • Last 990
  • Board contract/expectations
  • Last approved minutes
  • Last approved financial documents
  • Current strategic plan