For the last five years, I have served on many different nonprofit boards along with seeing nonprofit boards work with the organizations I work with professionally. These experiences have ranged from enlightening to downright unorganized and a waste of my time.
Each experience has helped me see how important it is for nonprofit professionals to serve on boards and also learned new tools to use in my professional life. However the biggest thing that I have witnessed is that many of our nonprofit boards are negatively impacted by a lack of investment from our board members and our organizations.
There are three main reasons that I have seen this happen.
The Board Members Become Bored
For one of the boards I have worked with professionally, the board was too large (29 board members), had no term limits (some members have been grandfathered in), and staff led. Half the time a quorum was not met and with two original board members (the organization is 30 years old), the organization was living in the past.
In the nonprofit world, we always talk about valuing our volunteers for their skills and giving them the opportunity to shine. The board is no different and when everything is being done by and led by the executive director or other staff members, the board members lose interest and feel that their time to the organization is not valuable.
Organizations Don’t Know How to Train Board Members
Just like we expect the board members to be invested, we need to invest our time in them. When you eat and breath an organization’s mission and programs everyday, it is easy to forget that you need the board to help the organization thrive financially and in the community. For some organizations, we are looking to just fill empty seats at the table and we have not cultivated relationships with people who are already invested in the organization.
We then throw these board members into a meeting where they are handed the financial statements, presented with the idea of hiring new employees or consultants, and make large decisions that will impact the future of the organization. However, we never gave them a chance to learn about the organization. Would you make a large decision without doing some research?
Why do we do this to our board members?
In June of 2010, I explored the topic of board member in name only and three years later, I have witnessed this on more than one occasion. While we would like to believe that people join boards for all the right reasons, there are people out there looking to pad their resumes with “volunteer and board” experience.
For some of these individuals, they think serving on a board gives them a way to get new business. Others look at a specific board and know that it will give them clout in the community. These individuals never fully buy into the organization and their attendance eventually drops off.
While there are safety nets set up to help organizations with these board members, often times the leadership is not there to make the necessary changes.
As nonprofit professionals and board members, we need to make sure that we look for people who are invested in our missions while also making sure that we invest in them through giving them the skills they need to be a strong and successful board member.
What are some ways that we can begin changing the culture of our boards?