Hey board members, let’s face it, navigating your position can be tricky. On top of your day job, you’ve agreed to contribute your best thinking to a nonprofit. If you don’t have much experience in the nonprofit world, it has its own set of rules, and playing by them benefits not only you but also your organization.
One of the most significant differences is you’re typically not paid to be on a nonprofit board, and your role is often unclear. Take time to learn about the nonprofit’s culture and determine how best to engage. After all, the nonprofit may not be looking to you to take control or insert yourself in every discussion. Be respectful and remember that you are in service to the mission and the organization, not the other way around.
After 20 years of service in the nonprofit sector as staff, ED, board chair, and funder, I’ve met a lot of boards, including some real doozies that would make your head spin. And while there are plenty of articles out there on so-called “best practices,” what about the pitfalls to avoid and real screw ups that can undermine impact and disrupt the natural flow of an organization? Well, here goes:
- Not knowing what the organization does: Believe it or not, I’ve worked with some boards that didn’t quite understand the nonprofit’s core mission, and some in which board members focused on a favorite program instead of the entire picture of the organization. Neither serve the organization well. Encourage new board members to learn the organization’s elevator pitch so they understand how best to describe what its focus is and how all the pieces fit together.
- Having a Big Ego: A board member may be a master of the universe in their day job, but as a board member they may not know the full extent and complexities of the cause. So, keep in mind you may not be the smartest person in the room. Listen and ask questions versus telling everyone what to do. You’re a board member, so guide the organization, do not make commands or edicts. And remember: the organization is not your company or anyone else’s. You do not own the organization, you serve it.
- Diving into operations and getting too into the weeds: This one is for all of my eager beaver board members. Thank you for learning about the organization, truly. But it likely does not help your nonprofit for you to know every single iota of detail regarding its operations unless you’re looking for a job. Remember, particularly if you’re a board member of a nonprofit with paid staff, stay at the strategic level. You’ve hired an ED who has hired staff to help implement the vision and mission you’ve helped to craft. Trust they’re going to excel at their jobs.
- Arriving late to the party: We’ve all been on committees that require months and months of discussion. These processes, while sometimes painful, typically yield strong buy-in at the board level, and more importantly, provide thoughtful direction to the organization. That said, I’ve also seen situations where board members who have not participated in the discussions insert themselves at the last minute, believing that they have an original idea the committee actually discussed months ago. It’s great to ask questions, but please be inquisitive versus assuming your peers have not already had multiple discussions about your big, new idea.
- Not asking questions: We’re all different; some people are introverted, some blurt out thoughts and questions, and some send thoughtful emails pre/post meetings. In any event, you should never feel scared to ask a question. Likely if something is unclear, others may not understand it as well. Asking for clarity is well worth the five-minute pause it takes to ensure everyone is on the same page.
- Not understanding the financial model: While financial analysis may not be part of your day job, please, please, please, make sure you understand the nonprofit’s financials and business model. Do not leave this work to the finance committee. Ask questions and make sure you understand the financial health of the organization; in fact, this is part of the fiscal responsibility legally assumed by all board members. I work with several organizations helping to create financial dashboards that provide quick, visual snapshots of financial health. These can be effective tools to help board members understand the financial realities of the organization in a visual way as opposed to staring at confusing financial statements. I always suggest that every board can benefit from a financial dashboard that includes liquidity, leverage, and budget to actual performance indicators.
- Pushing pet projects: Some board members fall in love with a project or program after a site visit or presentation and try to put it ahead of overall organizational goals. I’ve also seen board members try to hijack a strategic planning process by inserting their “brilliant idea.” Be careful not to push your own idea without reconciling it with the overall mission of the organization.
- Not evaluating the ED’s performance: One of the most basic functions of a board is to evaluate the executive director’s performance annually. Be open and honest with your board members and recognize that an ED with strong support, guidance, and direction from the board will likely perform better. And while it’s great to give support, make sure you share areas where the board sees opportunities for improvement. Have a healthy dialogue around what can be done better, and how the board can support this. While you’re at it, you should also definitely consider evaluating the board’s performance too.
- Not promoting your nonprofit to funders and others: You were likely invited to join the board due to your leadership in a similar industry, specific sector knowledge, and/or connections to donors and funders. Again, ask the marketing team or ED for the elevator pitch or guidance on how to make a specific ask, or make it clear if you’re not comfortable asking and offer to open doors, thank existing supporters, and embrace other methods of advancing fundraising efforts. Either way, fundraising for your nonprofit is one of the core responsibilities of every board member.
- Assuming you know the lives of your members and beneficiaries: This may be the biggest no-no of all. I’ve worked with several boards for nonprofits that support low-income families. During one meeting, a board member was describing to me “how a poor person should spend their money.” This person went on to tell me their values and how wealthy they are, and that if people would just work hard and spend money wisely, then they wouldn’t be poor. After I counted to ten and breathed calmly, I engaged with this person a bit about how someone with wealth may not know the true challenges a lower-income family may face. The point here is, be respectful and learn about your constituency and what the beneficiary’s lives are like, and never assume you know what they need. You may want to consider creating a board seat for a community member to ensure the nonprofit’s strategies are grounded in reality and that you can benefit from this critical firsthand perspective. Of course, one person cannot represent an entire community, but hey, it’s a start.
This list is not meant to be exhaustive; rather it’s designed to help new and existing board members become more engaged and better stewards of nonprofits. Learning how to bring your best to the boardroom is an ongoing opportunity. By becoming aware of unspoken biases and potentially distracting personalities, we can all improve our effectiveness in serving the missions of our nonprofits.
Do you agree with this list? Have you witnessed (or even committed—hey, we all have a learning curve!) other board member no-no’s? Share them in the comments below!
Marc Rand has focused the last twenty years on supporting the nonprofit sector through capacity building and finance. He spends his time creating new and innovative ways of supporting organizations through finance as the Executive Director of American Nonprofits, which includes operating the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance of California and Bridge to Bridge Loan Funds. He is the former Program Director for Loans and Affordable Housing at Marin Community Foundation, one of the country’s largest community foundations. Prior to being a funder, Marc served with the Peace Corps in Romania where he led a team that developed five credit unions focused on underserved population. Before his service with the Peace Corps, Marc served as a Capital Markets Analyst with First Union National Bank.