Are you Board yet? A more personal perspective on joining a Board

I finally joined a Board.

I say “finally” because I have been invited to apply for Board positions since leaving academia in 2007, but the situations were never right. I have worked with Boards, under Boards, and helped clients work on Board development strategies. Why would I take so long to finally join one? A strong and effective Board of Directors should be the vital core of an organization, and it seems like, in my personal experience, those organizations that are struggling or suffering in some way share one common factor — Board problems.

Are you on board yet? Personal perspective on Board of Directors

I think everyone who has worked in nonprofits has experienced similar problems/frustrations, including the Board members themselves.

There are a lot of great sources of information and advice, including possible benefits of joining a Board of Directors, basic fiduciary responsibilities, potential dilemmas of ineffectiveness, corruption, or just general bad behavior (such as this, this, and this), and the importance of Board member engagement. There are many, many more articles and blog posts our there on the interwebs discussing the benefits, pitfalls, and responsibilities you take on when joining a board.

I kept Shelly Banjo’s short article Before you join that board… bookmarked on my Mac for over a year now, though, for this article has resonated with me. Board members need to expect to work and help with fundraising. And actually go to meetings. And retreats when scheduled. Really! Do you believe in the mission and vision? Can you contribute financially? Foundations and other grantmakers need to see that the members of the Board are each personally committed to the organization, and that means putting your money where your mouth is (sorry to be crude, but it is amazing to me how many times I had encountered Boards that not only refused to help with fundraising, but would not even make a small personal gift of $20). Finally, here is a point that many never consider: do you believe in the organization enough to take on the legal responsibility of a Board member? Are you passionate about the mission and the work of the organization? Will you be comfortable talking with anyone and everyone about the org? Can you defend the work it does?

In addition to Banjo’s article, there were other personal factors that were important to consider with each Board invitation. To me, it was important to join a Board that has a good “balance of power” between the Executive Director and Board. I have seen so many situations where this balance is off (or in the case of one particular organization, the Board is controlled by the vote-holding ED and exists solely to rubber-stamp the ED’s manifesto).

It was also very important to me that I know and understand why I was invited to join the Board and what is expected of me. What skill set do they want me to bring to the table? How do I complement the rest of the Board, instead of just being another warm body with a vote?

This last factor may be the most important for those who are professionals in the nonprofit sector (i.e. you work at a nonprofit): will serving on the Board conflict with your day job in any way? This is an especially important question for those who are fundraisers. Can you balance all of your commitments?

Here is the wonderful organization that I am so happy to be a part of now: Snohomish County Legal Services connects those who are experiencing economic hardships with legal services for civil matters — from family law to landlord/tenant issues. Check them out!

What are your thoughts on Board service? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below.

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