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How to Be a Great Nonprofit Board Member

I really enjoy serving on and consulting with nonprofit boards.  There’s something wonderful about a group of people working together for the benefit of a cause that they all cherish.  It feels very different than a group of people working together because they are being paid to do so.  Of course, not all board experiences are wonderful.

Some boards feel like a group of pals having lunch together once a month, without accomplishing much of anything.  Brave boards set ambitious agendas and inspire members to joyously part with their time, talents and money. Coming on to a board as a new member can be fun, challenging, inspiring, intimidating, or all of the above.  Here are some tips for new board members on how to have a great board experience.

1)   Focus on the mission and the goals

Board membership is not about you.  Don't be an obnoxious benefactor. Great board members are laser focused on the mission of the organization, the people it serves, and its future.

2)   Be responsible and creative

As with almost anything, it’s helpful to learn the rules before deciding how to break them.  The most innovative board members take responsibility for learning the rules (bylaws, meeting guidelines, rules imposed by funders, etc…) so that they can be creative without putting the organization at risk.  I have seen board members who know so little about the rules governing the agency that they are useless in deliberations because they don’t have a clear grasp of the possibilities.  The National Council of Nonprofits offers some valuable resources for board members.

3)   Listen up and speak up 

Really effective boards are good at listening.  Boards that listen to their members, the organization’s staff and the community are much more effective than those that assume they know what’s best. Similarly, board members must be brave enough to speak up when they perceive something that might be harmful to the organization.  And the board as a whole must listen when members speak up.

4)   Share and learn

You were presumably asked to join the board because you have some talents to share.  Sharing your expertise and helping the organization evolve can be some of the most rewarding work of board membership.  I have worked with so many board members who are surprised by how much they actually learn from board participation. Boards can offer members connections, networking, new ideas, and a much deeper understanding of the issues and community.

5)   Give and ask

Most boards require members to donate to and raise funds for the organization.  While this can be intimidating to some new members, it can be a rewarding experience to see the collective impact on the organization and its mission.  BoardSource provides some wonderful resources for new board members who want to get comfortable with fundraising.   

6)   Work hard and enjoy!  This one is easy.

Yali BairComment