Have you been asked to serve on a nonprofit board? At first glance it’s quite an honor, as you are recognized for the skills, networks, knowledge and resources you can bring to their mission. Looking at current board members you may also realize there are great networking potential career advancement opportunities for you as well. However, take a moment to consider the great responsibilities serving on a board entails:
You have the vital duties of care (thoughtful decision-making), loyalty (avoiding self-dealing) and obedience (adhering to legal and ethical rules) in helping the nonprofit achieve its mission.
You also must carefully consider how, and if, you can fully contribute your time, treasure and talents. If the honest answer is maybe don’t join. Great board members understand the significant time and financial requirements asked of them. The one exception might be if you have a very low income but otherwise can contribute your talents and time. In fact, some boards offer a small stipend for their lowest income members to serve. That’s unlike the board service payments some foundations and wealthier nonprofits offer their well-off members. If you don’t have a low income, you should not be paid for what should be selfless service to the mission. You should be contributing, not the other way around.
Before you accept an invitation, be sure the board has a board manual and an orientation process. Look over their financials and ask if there are any current cash flow issues or other operational concerns by the board.
Read past annual reports, agendas, minutes and the strategic plan to get clarity of what the board has been working on and hopes to accomplish.
Review the bylaws and familiarize yourself with the basics of the Roberts Rules of Order to understand how a board operates. Ask when, and how often, the executive director has been evaluated.
Although you may be new to the board, you have a responsibility equal to every other board member. Every board member is a leader, not just the president, executive committee or committee chairs. You have the same legal and ethical responsibility as everyone else, which means that if you observe or hear or read about something that appears like a conflict of interest, it’s incumbent upon you to raise the issue with the chair, and if it involves the chair, then with the board. If not for your concerns, the entire board and staff could be at risk of legal, ethical and reputational ruin as we’ve read too often in this very paper. Although it may be allowable under the bylaws, or state and federal law, to do business with fellow board members or even with the nonprofit itself, my advice is don’t — ever. Look at the University of Maryland Medical System scenario as an awful example of that ethical slippery slope.
The good news is that hundreds of thousands of nonprofits have boards that do great work every day. They need more members, especially from diverse backgrounds — including women, young people and people of color. Diversity within a board helps prevents group-think and cliques and opens the doors to innovation in remaining relevant to those they serve.
Board service can be one of the most satisfying unpaid jobs you’ll ever have, and there’s an amazing national resource at your fingertips right here in Maryland: The Standards for Excellence Institute at Maryland Nonprofits. There, you will find guides, board templates, check sheets, blogs and seminars on being the best board member you can be. Striving to meet those standards for excellence will not only advance your nonprofit’s reputation and mission but yours as well. And that’s good for everyone.
Greg Cantori (email@example.com) is past president and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits and currently owns Little Deeds, LLC, a certified aging in place handyperson company. He and his wife Renee, and their two dogs, Skipper and Marley, live aboard their schooner Goodwind in Annapolis.