by David Aft

The most successful nonprofit organizations have two key ingredients—competent staff members committed to the organization’s mission and a board of directors made up of driven, energized volunteers. If you are an active community member, chances are, you have been asked to serve on one or more charitable boards. A board commitment can be a lot of work, and so it’s not a decision you should take lightly.

Even boards of directors that lead great nonprofits have their inherent imperfections, quirks, and inadequacies. In my twenty-five year career helping struggling nonprofit organizations become more effective, I’ve often witnessed boards composed of weak—even invisible and absent—members. I’m not knocking community volunteers. However, I believe in most cases, those inactive board members may not have fully understood what they were agreeing to when they were approached about serving on the board.

It is important that people fully understand typical board duties before making the decision to serve. Let me explain:

Successful Board Members Know the Organization—You need to know and understand the organization’s mission and activities. Indeed, you need to be ready to deliver an elevator pitch (a simple two-minute explanation of the organization and its vision) to a friend who inquires. You need to know the organization’s phone number and website. You need to become familiar with key staff members and their duties in case you have a question. And it’s a good idea to read the original bylaws and most recent audit materials.

Great Board Members Take Their Fiduciary Responsibilities Seriously—When you agree to serve on a nonprofit board you are agreeing to follow several basic fiduciary duties (duties involving trust). You are expected to attend board meetings, listen, and make decisions based on the best interest of the organization—ignoring any personal interests you may have in the matters of discussion. In fact, you may be asked to sign a “Conflict of Interest” agreement. You need to make sure that your position on the board is not such that you will directly or indirectly receive an inappropriate financial gain for you, your family members, or your friends. Signing “Conflict of Interest” agreement does not mean you are banned from doing business with the nonprofit itself. It just means that relationships are disclosed and documented in advance and that you will recuse yourself from votes involving work or service you provide, or that may indirectly benefit you.

Active Members Bring Their Talents To Boards—Board members often assist in fundraising activities. They make phone calls to help “get the ball rolling” on projects sometimes. If you have a special skill set, you may be asked to use those tools to move the organization forward. For example, if you are the Chief Financial Officer for a company, you may be asked to oversee financials of the organization. If you work in the marketing field, you may be asked to help make decisions affecting the organization’s marketing, publicity, and communications. You may also be asked to work on a committee. That’s common, and it may require even more attention and time. If you are on a committee, you may be asked to deliver a brief status report noting the committee’s findings or recommendations at the regular board meetings.

Effective Board Members Show Up, Speak Up, and Vote—You need to read board materials sent to you in advance, and think about issues pertaining to the organization’s mission and decide how you feel about issues on the table. For example, in most cases, you will be sent the “minutes” from the previous board meeting. You are expected to review the minutes in advance and make a note of any necessary corrections. You are an overseer, so be prepared to attend meetings and speak up if you see or hear something in a board meeting that seems like a bad idea, looks suspicious, seems risky, or doesn’t seem to match the organizational mission. That’s your job. And your votes are important, so show up, speak up, and vote.

Being on the board of directors of one of your favorite nonprofits can be an immensely rewarding experience, so I encourage you to get involved. But again, know what you are getting into when you agree to serve. Love what you do, work as a team, and stay passionate, always.

David Aft is the president of the Community Foundation of Northwest Georgia. He has worked in the nonprofit field for over twenty-five years and is a recognized resource and noted speaker on charitable enterprise, civics, fundraising strategy and community development.