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Are You Satisfied With Your Board?

Nonprofit boards of directors are often criticized for evidencing too little interest in their organizations, or -- the opposite problem -- for micro-managing. In the first case, the board is not doing enough for the organization: not raising enough money; not evaluating the executive director; not setting policy; not giving direction. In the second case, the board is interfering with day-to-day management: remaking decisions of the executive director regarding how a policy is carried out; giving staff directions without checking with the director to see if staff have the time or skills to carry out the task; purchasing equipment or materials; or wanting detailed reports from staff about a particular project without going through the executive director.

Particular nonprofit cultures contribute to these maladies. The uninvolved or rubber-stamp board, working with a strong executive director (possibly the founder) simply okays almost all requests, budgets and agendas presented to them. The overly involved board may have run the organization before any staff was hired, and they may continue to maintain proprietary interest in the running of the nonprofit. This malady is exacerbated if the executive director is not a strong leader. The personalities of the members of both the board and the staff can play a role that encourages either extreme, and the organization suffers because the board is not focusing on what it should be doing.

What can be done in this situation? To begin with, it helps if everyone involved with the organization-- particularly the board members and the executive director -- has a clear understanding about who does what, whose responsibilities are whose and what the procedures are that must be followed to carry out the organization's mission and purpose. Zimmerman Lehman believes that training is critical….just like you would do for any staff person, board members need to be informed of their responsibilities right from the start. While such tutoring will not change a long history and culture of indifference or meddling, it will set the stage for doing things right.

Where does the process of educating the board begin? The recruitment package should include a job description for each potential board member. Telling prospective board members that financial contributions are expected is far easier than springing the news on them a year after they've joined. We at Zimmerman Lehman cringe when we hear the all too familiar comment, "But I was told I would not have to do any fundraising when I joined the board." In addition, responsibilities like reviewing minutes and agendas prior to coming to the board meeting, attending board meetings, and participating in committee work and the annual planning retreat all should be included in the description. If you don't have a board member job description, be sure to include its development as a topic at your next board meeting.

Your nonprofit organization should determine the specific expectations you have for your board members (part of their job description). A sample list of an individual board member's responsibilities follows:

    • Set overall direction and policy for the organization
    • Prepare, attend and participate in regular board meetings
    • Approve minutes and budgets, be well-informed regarding the organization's fiscal and program work
    • Ensure nonprofits effectiveness through evaluation and metrics
      Participate in the performance evaluation of the executive director
    • Participate actively on committees as needed
    • Actively raise funds for the organization by direct contact with current and prospective donors, including personal friends and colleagues, with assistance from staff
    • Actively participate in planning retreat to set mission and vision, and strategies for implementation
    • Contribute annually from personal resources to the extent of capacity
    • Speak on behalf of the nonprofit, communicate with stakeholders as needed
    • Help recruit new boards members with a diversity of skills and backgrounds that meet the needs of organization's vision and the community it serves
    • Avoid conflicts of interests

Being a board member means more than just showing up at meetings; it involves being well- informed and asking difficult questions, participating in planning and policy making, ensuring a sound financial footing, and monitoring and evaluating the management and governance of the organization.

Copyright 2014 Zimmerman Lehman.

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Copyright © 2005, Zimmerman Lehman