During a workshop for a group of non-profit staff and volunteers recently, I was dealing with trends that figure to have a major impact on non-profit organizations in the next decade. As I was about to complete the list, a hand shot up near the front of the audience.
"Of all the trends you just covered," an experienced staffer asked me, "which one would you consider to be the most important?" I stood staring at the overhead slide for probably a full minute before I responded.
Many social and demographic trends promise to pose enormous challenges and opportunities to non-profits. I certainly won't quibble over their relative importance. But, for my money, the No. 1 spot on the non-profit countdown is the critical role that volunteer boards will play.
In a year, I'll work closely with a dozen or more non-profits, each one diligently pursuing its vision of a better future for its clientele. Some of them are very effective, most are moderately effective, and a few are in sorry shape. But one thing is certain: Without a committed, hard-working board, not one will achieve the excellence it desires.
What characteristics make an outstanding board? First, a willingness to serve, backed by real service, not lip-service. Board members who rarely attend meetings do no one any good. They demoralize those who truly serve with body and spirit, and they take up room for those who are waiting to serve.
Good board members take their roles and responsibilities seriously. They set policy, they hire the best chief officer they can, and they evaluate his or her performance. They do not meddle in staff affairs. They constantly seek development opportunities to increase their effectiveness. They oversee the finances of the organization with the full knowledge that they are honoring a public trust. They work hard on committees. They annually evaluate their own performance.
Considering today's economic environment, and the troubling social conditions that many non-profits face, the days of free-loading board members are over. Board members must support the organizations they serve in a variety of ways.
It should go without saying -- but too frequently has to be said -- that all board members must support their organizations financially as much as possible. For a board member, that means s-t-r-e-t-c-h. If a person believes in what an organization does enough to serve on its board, then he or she needs to back that commitment with money, and more.
For many grass-roots community organizations, the standard of giving may be lower. On the other hand, I have seen too many instances where board members on the lowest rung of the economic ladder have given more money and a far greater percentage of income than those at the highest rungs.
As a consultant, I am often asked what board members are to do if they are financially strapped and cannot afford to contribute to the organization. As long they stretch to give what they can, they can easily raise the rest from their peers, especially after some simple training in fund-raising. If they consistently do not give, they should politely be asked to resign from the board. Advisory committees are good places for people who are willing to work but unable to keep up with the high giving standards set by some boards.
Good board members also represent their organizations well in the community, speaking at luncheons, seeking other volunteers and acting as the eyes and ears of their favorite cause.
Board members who perform well generate a palpable excitement among themselves, in the paid and unpaid staff, and in the community. They evolve a culture of performance that is challenging and stimulating. This process is also self-generating, experienced board members coach the next generation to do as well or better.
The biggest challenge non-profits face in the next decade is to develop just such a board.
Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.