How to be an Effective Board Member
The success of every board depends upon the collaboration and melding of ideas of the board members. According to Frank Martinelli, President of the Center for Public Skills Training, every board has three broad areas of responsibility including:
- Planning and policy development
- Community and organizational development
- Fundraising and support development
Effective boards of directors move organizations towards strategic plans with the goals of growing and strengthening the organization. Conversely, weak board governance can stagnate organizations and may even cause them to fail.
Developing Board Members
While most board members have good intentions, the majority of them have little or no experience in serving on a board of directors. A 2015 Stanford Graduate School of Business study showed that 65% of boards didn’t feel their board was experienced and 48% didn’t believe that board members were engaged in their work. The same study showed that only 47% of non-profit directors believe that their fellow board members understand their obligations as directors well or very well. Carol Berde, retired board chairman for a community development financial institution called Ways to Work, states that there are three keys to board member effectiveness:
- Information-members should be given information beforehand, so they come to the meeting prepared to engage in meaningful discussion, and they should carve out time from their schedules to review it. Board members should also learn how to read financial statements.
- Questions-well-rounded boards have members with differing points of view. Members should digest information prior to the meeting and arrive prepared with questions to clarify the issues and comprehend the scope of the agenda items. Effective board members refrain from obsessing on a single issue and come with an open mind to ask questions about all issues.
- Decisions-timely distribution of material sets the stage for decision-making. Board members become energized and engaged when they are an active part of forward progress. Members should support decisions of the entire board even when they disagree.
Effective board members are engaged in the mission and vision of the organization outside of board meetings. Leadership and seasoned board members should mentor newer members to guide them towards areas where they can use their talents and abilities. Board members share responsibility with the leadership for digging in and contributing at the ground level.
Refrain from Sitting on Too Many Boards
There’s an old adage that says, “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.” Don’t spread yourself too thin. It’s better to serve on one or two boards where you can fulfill your role responsibly than to serve multiple boards with less effectiveness. Be realistic about the time and attention you can offer your board.
Refrain from sharing sensitive information outside the boardroom. It might be tempting to share things with organizational members, family members, friends, or colleagues, but you won’t do yourself or your organization any favors if well-meaning information turns into bad gossip.
Avoid Conflicts of Interest
People often join boards where they have a professional interest or connection. Disclose to the rest of the board any potential conflicts of interest where you may have an investment where you stand to gain. When a conflict of interest arises, act in good faith by abstaining from discussion and voting.
Get to Know the Organization
While you may be familiar with a board’s work prior to becoming a board member, you may not have full scope of what the organization does. Take time to read the organization’s vision and mission statements. Ask for copies of the last six board meeting minutes, including the financial statements. Request a current list of board members and committee members, along with their current contact information. Review brochures, articles, and notable achievements of the organization. If you haven’t received one, ask for a board manual and copy of the by-laws.
Learn How to Read Financial Statements
You don’t need to be an accountant to read the organization’s financial statements, but you should learn how to understand the information in them. Each board member holds a responsibility to review the financial statements and help guide the organization toward its financial or other goals. If accounting is not your area of expertise, remember that asking questions is one of the three keys to being an effective board member. Ask questions until you gain a better understanding of the financials.
Take Advantage of Training and Development Opportunities
There may be training and development opportunities within your organization that will help you increase your effectiveness as a board member. Take advantage of those openings to increase your knowledge and skill. If your board doesn’t provide training, look for courses or workshops within your community.
When a board member is committed to being an effective member of the board, time spent on the board becomes a mutually rewarding experience. A board with active and productive board members creates a synergy that becomes greater than any one board member can create on his own.