Board Membership: Part I- The Basics

When you hear the term ‘Board of Directors‘ you know the individuals who make up the committee mean business. A Board, whether for a private or public institution, are the individuals who sit at the table and make decisions that can supercede an employee decision, customer/volunteer opinion, and yes even the ‘final’ decision of the President or Executive Director. Board members are often well respected, highly regarded and looked to to step in in times of trouble; especially for non-profit organizations. If you’ve ever considered being a board member or your organization needs one, this post is for you. Today we are going to talk about the responsibilities of a Board of Directors. In parts two and three of this series, we’ll discuss what it means to be a good board member and which type of board is for you. For now, let’s break down the basics a board of directors…

The Cash Cow

‘The Board’, as many non profits refer to it, is at the top of the food chain. They earn this right for many reasons, starting with the capacity to fundraise. Yes, the obligations of a board member almost always include a financial responsibility that puts he or she in the ranks of a major donor. Members are required to give or get a certain amount of money donated to the organization. The amount of the give-get depends on the non-profit; sometimes it’s as small as $500 annually, other times it’s as large as $500,00- annually. Without the financial pull of board members some organizations would not be able to function.

The Financial-Legal Eagles

Yes, board members are responsible for the financial accountability of an institution. Their role is to maintain the highest ethical and legal consideration as it relates to the finances of the organization. In other words they have a fiduciary responsibility for an organization. This includes approving the organization’s annual budget, monitoring spending throughout the year, and making sure fundraising goals are being met. Financials for a non-profit also include legal responsibility. Board members take strides to answer such questions as: Are the proper tax forms filled out? Is the organization filed properly as a 501(c)(3)? Are they meeting the requirements to maintain their status? And while board members are not legal representatives for non-profits, the Board president would stand in court along side a trusted attorney. Proper.

The Power Brokers

Being a board member is a pretty awesome deal. Board members are often very well connected individuals in the community and professionally. Having connections to the people and places that can give the non-profit money is great; but members also need these resources for programming, volunteer and employee recruitment, vendor selection…the list goes on and on. Board members have leverage to make the impossible possible by simply having the right circles of influence. These influences can include everything from getting local members of government to visit the organization to getting an influential speaker for a gala event to getting a big check written by the right person. The result of having- or establishing- these contacts, allows board members to provide an endless source of powerful networks to the organization.

The Experts

As a member of a board you are expected to be the expert in your respective area. Yes, you can be the know it all. Board members are selected based on their specific area of expertise. If the board needs a greater level of media exposure, the existing chairs may look to elect a PR executive. If the board is new and they need financial guidance, someone with a strong finance background will be elected treasurer. Or if they need all around non-profit organizational guidance, a board may seek to elect a retired executive director as board chair. The bottom line is, public sector organizations recruit board members that are excellent at what they do, they can’t afford not to.

The Jack & Jill of All Trades

We’ve heard this term before and we probably associate it with employees of an organization or even a top manager. However, in many cases, especially with newer non-profits, board members wear many hats. While it is important to have a board that is financially equipped, many times non-profits need a diverse group of individuals to make a board successful. Until an org gets this diverse group folks- or while they are in a transitional phase, board members do a lot of uncomfortable work. This means the treasurer must also be the pr person, the board chair fills the role of programming officer AND the executive director, and the vice president is the marketing and lead development officer. In other words, board members put in work!

With so many responsibilities that impact the sustainability of the organization, now you know being a board member is nothing to take lightly. No matter what type of board you serve on, or in what capacity, the expectation is that you know what it means to be an effective member….And that’s what we’ll tackle in Part II of our Board Membership series: How to Be Successful as a Board Member. Part III will cover the different types of boards, and help you determine what’s best for you.

In the meantime, what has your experience been as a board member? Can you share best practices with us? Or are you seriously considering being a board member, and you have a question? Leave a comment and tell us!

2 thoughts on “Board Membership: Part I- The Basics

  1. What a great article! You’ve done a wonderful job addressing the many different hats you wear as a board member. I’ve been on the Board for a few organizations for quite a few years and have found the experience fulfilling. It is very important that each individual have passion in the organization that they represent (as a board member). A lot of times the Executive Director and the Staff are extremely overwhelmed with carrying out the mission of the organization. As a board member it’s your responsibility to carry whatever load is required to support the mission (and ultimately) the vision of the organization. If you no longer possess the passion or interest — perhaps it’s time to step aside. You may find yourself interested in another organization. Like everything in life, create a balance and show yourself to be true. Not only do you represent yourself as a board member but you are a salesman, supporter, advocate and all around everything for your organization. Put your face forward!

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