Every nonprofit organization establishes roots. Some organizations thrive and live on. Others fail and are short-lived. When there is passion for a cause or an issue, nonprofit organizations can have major positive impact on people and the communities in which they live. Nonprofit organizations start up with volunteers, and often, they continue running with volunteers. Becoming a board member of a nonprofit organization and establishing a permanent role comes with much responsibility. When you find the right fit within an organization, it can also be a lot of fun.
NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is just one of many nonprofit success stories. Imagine two young mothers sharing lunch around a kitchen table in 1977, in Madison, Wisconsin, having a conversation about how best to help their sons living with schizophrenia. Harriet Shetler and Beverly Young decided to start a nonprofit organization to help other family members of people living with mental illness. They chose the name Alliance for the Mentally Ill because the acronym, AMI, means “friend” in French. Within six months, the group grew to 75 people. They later changed the name to NAMI to broaden their scope.
Today, NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization for people with mental health conditions. NAMI now has affiliates in all 50 states and hosts an annual national convention. The organization is still run entirely by family members and friends of people living with mental illness.
Shetler and Young had many of the qualities that nonprofit board members need. They were active in their communities and were amazing ambassadors and advocates for the values and mission of NAMI. Certainly, they learned much along the way about how to run a nonprofit, including fundraising, contributing their own funds, managing the business end of it, and finding time to manage their own lives and families. They are prime examples of what dedicated people can accomplish through a nonprofit organization.
What Do Board Members Really Do?
The National Council of Nonprofits summarizes the duties of nonprofit board members as providing financial foresight, insight and oversight.
As part of a board member’s oversight, they are responsible for hiring the executive director if there is one, and setting his or her compensation. This duty falls under a governance principle called duty of care. Board members must also agree to perform duties of loyalty and obedience. Let’s break each one down.
Duty of care means ensuring that the nonprofit takes a prudent approach to using assets, including facilities, people and goodwill. It also means providing oversight for all activities that improve and sustain the organization.
Duty of loyalty means making decisions in the best interest of the nonprofit and not putting themselves first. It also refers to maintaining confidentiality about matters that they discuss in executive sessions.
Duty of obedience means that board members must know the local, state and federal laws regarding nonprofit organizations. They must also make sure that members of the nonprofit act ethically, while adhering to the stated mission and purpose of the organization.
Within these duties, nonprofit board members need to oversee the business and fundraising activities of the nonprofit.
Nonprofit Board Members Make a Personal and Professional Commitment to Fundraising
Nonprofits expect board members to contribute some of their own finances, as well as participate in other types of fundraising efforts.
Board members of nonprofits typically make a donation at the beginning or end of the year. Donating personal funds is more than a token obligation. The competition for donor funds is quite competitive, and donors appreciate nonprofits where board members are dedicated enough to contribute their own funds to it. The amount doesn’t even have to be large. Donors just want to know that board members are invested in the organization.
In addition to making a personal contribution, nonprofits often expect board members to ask people within their personal and professional relationships to make contributions during fundraising campaigns.
Boards brainstorm, select and organize fundraising events. Nonprofit boards expect each member to actively participate in fundraising activities.
Nonprofit boards often also seek grant monies that they don’t have to pay back. Some board members may want to take a class on grant-writing to help the organization.
It goes without saying that board members should also take responsibility to appropriately thank donors and grant-makers.
Nonprofit Board Members Must Honor Their Time Commitments
While it’s an honor to serve on a board of directors, it’s a responsibility that takes time. Board members must allot adequate time for meetings, research, volunteering, fundraising and networking. When a board member of a nonprofit suggests that you’d make a perfect addition to their board, it’s a good idea to ask how often the board meets and what their expectations will be.
Board meetings can occur monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly, and all board members should attend unless there is some emergency or other mitigating circumstance. Board members expect their peers to arrive at board meetings prepared and ready to participate actively. Nonprofit board members need to be collaborative team players who can offer a spirit of independence, and who can communicate ideas clearly. It’s important for board members to inform the board if there are any personal conflicts of interest.
In the corporate world and in the nonprofit sector, good governance suggests that all board members should serve on at least one committee.
There is much for nonprofit board members to learn about the business end of running a nonprofit. They need to understand how to read financial reports and insurance policies, and keep up-to-date on industry issues and advancements.
Boards may also expect board members to help recruit volunteers to help drive their mission. This may entail participating in volunteer fairs and other community events. Nonprofit board members quickly learn how to identify others with a passion for the cause. They are often the best people to learn more about their volunteers’ skills and strengths and to help them find an appropriate place to plug in.
In most cases, serving on a nonprofit board of directors doesn’t require experience or expertise. Experienced and non-experienced board members seek opportunities to improve their board skills by attending workshops and doing research on their own. Many nonprofits find it helpful for seasoned board members to mentor newcomers. Good corporate governance requires board self-evaluations. Today’s nonprofit boards typically participate in some kind of board member self-evaluation and board effectiveness evaluations.
Striking a Healthy Balance Between Charity, Work, Life and Family
Often, the passion for contributing to an important cause becomes a burden for board members who don’t first consider the time commitment of their new responsibilities. Nonprofits should develop a written board member description, so new members know what to expect. It’s vital that nominees be realistic about the time that they can reasonably contribute for volunteering.
The responsibilities of nonprofit board members are no less significant than the duties of corporate board members. Board members who can’t fulfill their duties due to other demands serve the nonprofit better by stepping down.