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What to Expect: 6 Tips for Being a High Performing New Board Member


Jacqui Catrabone

What to Expect: 6 Tips for Being a High Performing New Board Member by Debra Thompson and Jacqui Catrabone, Strategy Solutions

Congratulations! You’ve earned your place on a nonprofit board of directors, and now you can help make an impact for your organization and the community.

Perhaps this is your first time serving on a board, or maybe you’ve served for a different organization in the past. Regardless of your experience level, we could all use a lesson in expectations.

Your role as a board member is important. And it’s essential that you know what’s expected (and not expected) of you during your time of board service.

Here are 6 tips for being a high performing new board member:

     1.  Understand the Basics of Board Governance

In order to function as an effective board member, you must first understand the basics of what it actually means to govern a nonprofit board.

The board has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the mission continues as long as the need exists. This responsibility includes two important duties:

  • Duty of Care — stay informed, ask questions and be good stewards of the organization’s resources

  • Duty of Loyalty — make decisions that are in the best interest of the organization and support majority decisions once they are made, even if you disagree

Board governance also involves supporting the CEO or Executive Director (ED) in their role. Your job is not to run the operations of the agency. As a board, you assess the ED’s performance and evaluate programs to ensure they meet the mission of the organization.

     2.  Ensure the Organization is  Operating Under Appropriate            Policies & Has a Strategic Plan

A lot of new board members don’t understand the concept of policies in the first place. The Standards for Excellence:® An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector provides a list of policies every organization should have in place to ensure that all legal requirements are met.

You should know the policies your organization has and why it has them. These policies must be reviewed at least once every three years to stay current in an ever-changing environment.

In addition, the strategic plan is vital in guiding the work of the board and organization as a whole. The board is responsible to ensure that there is a strategic plan and the organization is effectively operating under the plan.

     3.  Understand the “Rules” of Management Service Volunteerism

It’s common for the ED to want and need assistance from board members in their areas of expertise. For example, if you have marketing knowledge, the ED may request that you provide guidance on event promotion. This is called management service volunteerism.

When you perform activities at the request of the ED, you must take off your board hat. You are a volunteer that just happens to be a board member and follow the ED’s guidance. If you misunderstand this, it’s easy to overstep boundaries.

While board members are encouraged to help with strategic requests, you should also watch out for the possibility of being taken advantage of. Be sure the ED doesn’t start treating you as if you were their full-time volunteer staff member.

     4.  Give a Financial Contribution

As a board member, you have a duty to financially contribute each year even if you’re not asked. Your contribution should be a stretch gift (the highest amount of money you can possibly give based on your means). As a board member, you should set a good example by making a donation, even if your means only allow for $5.

In some organizations, you’re given a specific amount that you must donate or raise. It’s perfectly fine to raise the majority of the needed amount, as long as you do contribute yourself.

     5.  Be a Good Ambassador in the Community

Your role as a board member does not just begin and end in board meetings. You must also be a positive ambassador for the organization within the community.

You should openly talk about your organization’s mission, do what you can to make connections for the organization and always share/promote good things about the organization. Encourage the ED to provide you with the talking points needed to be a good ambassador, if these are not provided during board orientation.

Beyond sharing the “talking points,” be wary of what you say additionally. Board members as individuals are actually not authorized to speak on behalf of the board, unless the ED or board chair authorizes you to do so.

     6.  Monitor & Ask About the Steps for Onboarding a First Time            Board Member

If you’re a first time board member, there’s a unique onboarding process that should take place upon your appointment to the board. The ED and Governance Committee should do the following:

  • Review items on the board member orientation checklist

  • Explain what policies are and the role the board has in policy development

  • Explain what committees are and how the board functions

  • Assign you a board mentor

  • Reestablish agreed-upon meeting times to ensure that new board members can actually attend the board meetings

  • Instruct you on how to talk about the organization and your role on the board

Nonprofit organizations should educate and onboard members who have never served on a board before differently so that the novice board member knows how the board works. If your new member orientation doesn’t include all of the items above, you should ask your ED about them because they may not be aware of what you need to know or learn.

Being a new board member comes with a unique set of challenges but more importantly, it comes with a variety of opportunities!

With these 6 tips in your back pocket, you’re able to better understand your role and more effectively serve the nonprofit organization close to your heart.

If you ever feel that you (or your board) need to be better equipped for high performing service, Strategy Solutions is here.

With more than 25 years of experience, we’ve worked with both nonprofit and for-profit companies through organizational change and growth.

Debra Thompson and Jacqui Catrabone are licensed consultants, trainers and peer reviewers for the The Standards for Excellence:® An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector. Contact us with any questions today.

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