Being a Better Board Member

Ann C. Fitzgerald, President

When nonprofits face trouble (financial irregularities, management mistakes or even illegal activities), outsiders often wonder where the board members were. Why didn’t they notice the problem? Why didn’t they take action?

In an ideal world, board members would be well-informed of their leadership role, engaged in the nonprofit’s work, fiscally responsible and philanthropically supportive.

But in reality, many board members—while well-intentioned—are not as active as they should be. The nonprofit’s leadership and the board itself share equal responsibility for this failing.

If you are going to assume the serious commitment of serving on a nonprofit board, take an active role by following these important steps:

  1. Protect yourself. Every nonprofit should have directors and officers liability insurance to indemnify directors and officers for damages and legal costs arising from lawsuits related to “wrongful acts.” Without this protection, you could be forced to pay damages from your personal assets.
  2. Know your role. Board members have specific duties and responsibilities in a nonprofit organization, but micromanaging operations isn’t one of them. Get appropriately involved by understanding your role and obligations, and find ways to put your talents to work for the organization.
  3. Seek education. There are many excellent resources on good governance, including BoardSource and the National Council of Nonprofits. Furthermore, many free online resources are available to help your board perform a self-assessment. This is a good way to benchmark the health of the board and identify areas for improvement.
  4. Don’t wait to be asked. According to a recent Bridgespan Group survey, only 46 percent of boards on average had 100 percent participation in giving. Don’t be that board member who has to be asked. Pledge your support early and make the nonprofit one of your top three philanthropic priorities.
  5. Step up. Don’t wait until a minute before the board meeting to review documents. Prepare in advance and ask questions. Forge a strong relationship with the executive director and be a resource and mentor. Above all, if there is a problem, don’t ignore the elephant in the room. Be ready to act when necessary.
  6. Step down. It’s an honor to serve on a board, but it’s also hard work that takes time as well as personal and financial commitment. If you can’t dedicate yourself to the cause, it may be time to exit the board.

If you need help building or developing your board, contact us today.

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