So You’ve Joined a Nonprofit Board – Now What?

For 2020, here are 20 tips for new nonprofit board members.

  1. Start to get to know your fellow board members, the executive leadership, and some or all of the staff. They are the people who get things done so you’ll want to know with whom you are placing your trust. If you haven’t had a personal meeting with the board chair and/or executive, you may want to arrange that early in your term so you have a better understanding of where they want to lead the organization.
  2. Review the mission of the organization, check it against the governing documents (e.g., articles of incorporation and bylaws), make sure it is consistent. If it’s not consistent with the articles, let the chair of the board or executive know.
  3. Get knowledgeable about the programmatic activities of the organization. As a board member, you should know a fair amount about what the organization does, why it operates these programs, what impact they have, and how they are perceived by the public.
  4. Get knowledgeable about the financial health of the organization. As a board member, you should know enough about reading financial statements to generally understand when an organization is in good or poor financial health.
  5. Get knowledgeable about the culture of the organization. As a board member, you should have a general sense of the organizational culture and how it has and may be affecting organizational behavior and decision-making. While culture may not be easily defined, you may be able to tell if the workplace is or is not hierarchical, divided, diverse and inclusive, formal, organized, creative, and/or happy.
  6. Get knowledgeable about the values of the organization. As a board member, you should know what drives and guides the organization in how it advances its mission, how it conducts its activities, and how it measures its performance. This can be difficult where organizational leaders haven’t recently articulated the organizational values or addressed them in decision-making.
  7. Prepare for your first board meeting. Make sure you devote sufficient time in reading the materials that should be sent to you in advance. Write down your fellow board members’ names. Be on time.
  8. Listen actively at board meetings. ‘Nuff said.
  9. Ask questions. If you’re concerned about looking uninformed or foolish, ask your questions to someone on the board you trust. Find a “board buddy” if one hasn’t been assigned to you.
  10. Take notes. Keep a record of what you believed to be the key discussions and actions at the meeting as well as the important thoughts and reactions you had during and after the meeting.
  11. Keep a minute book. Ideally, the organization will provide you with one either in hard copy or electronically. But if not, make sure you have a readily retrievable and reviewable record of the organization’s governing documents, minutes of board meetings, pre-meeting packets of information (typically including an agenda, management report, financials, and committee reports), and actions by written consent.
  12. Educate yourself on fiduciary duties and prudent practices of board governance. There are many good resources (e.g., articles, books, trainings) on a board member’s fiduciary duties, what practical steps may be taken to meet a board member’s duties and responsibilities, and what risks there are for failing to meet those duties and responsibilities.
  13. Discuss (tactfully) with your colleagues on the board about what prudent practices of board governance have been considered and when. Such topics may include how often the board should meet, how many board members is optimal, how the board should allocate its time at board meetings, what board members should do between meetings to help assure they are meeting their fiduciary duties, what policies the organization needs or needs updated, what committee structures are ideal for the organization, what officer structures are ideal for the organization, when the governing documents have last been reviewed, when the organization’s insurance needs have last been reviewed, and what other risk management strategies have been thoughtfully considered and implemented.
  14. Take steps to be assured that the organization is in legal compliance. Such steps should include verifying that the organization has properly maintained its tax-exempt status, its qualification to do business in all states in which it is operating, its charitable registration in all applicable states, its compliance with labor and employment laws, and its withholding and timely remittance of payroll taxes. Of course, other compliance issues may also need to be examined and discussed, including those related to programmatic activities, intellectual property, licenses and permits, and contractual obligations.
  15. Be prepared to evaluate the executive and vote on determining the executive’s compensation. While in a great many ways, the executive is in partnership with the board in the leadership of the organization, one of the most important board duties is selecting and evaluating the executive. Annual performance reviews may not always be the best tool, but some form of evaluation and feedback should be incorporated, and preferably based on shared understandings of the executive’s goals and objectives.
  16. Act as an ambassador to the organization. Update your bios and share with your network the great things about your organization. Fundraising is often an expected but awkward expectation of board members. Learn how to participate in a manner that becomes comfortable for you. As an ambassador, also serve as the eyes and ears for the organization in your personal and work environments. Be prepared to share information with the board and executive about information that may be of key relevance to the organization.
  17. Consider volunteering for the organization in ways other than as a board member. This may mean serving as an officer, helping with fundraising efforts, providing support services at an event, and using your special skills and abilities to help the organization. But on the last point, ensure everyone knows in what capacity your providing such services (not as a board member, but as a volunteer who may need to report to a supervisor) and attorneys need to take special care to comply with professional responsibility and ethical rules.
  18. Stand for your organization’s mission. Be an advocate for your organization’s mission both in your capacity as a board member and in your individual capacity. You have the ability to do things, like support or oppose political candidates, that your organization isn’t able to do. Don’t hesitate to speak out (though of course choose your words wisely and strategically) and vote.
  19. Be ready to make a donation that is consistent with the expectations of the board that should have been communicated to you in advance. Commonly, an organization will ask for a donation that is meaningful to the particular board member, noting that each board member may have very different financial means and what is meaningful to one person may be very different from what is meaningful to another.
  20. Get yourself ready to initiate positive changes for the organization. Now comes the more difficult part of settling in your role as an equal voice in the governance of the organization. Be ready to contribute to make your organization stronger and better able to determine the right path in advancing its mission.