Four Takeaways From Serving on a Nonprofit Board

Last month, I attended my final meeting as a member of the Board of Directors for Summer Scholars, which provides literacy and enrichment programs for elementary students from low-income families. It’s a tremendous organization that provides innovative, community-specific learning solutions for kids who need that support.

This meeting concluded my sixth year of term-limited service on the board – which I jokingly though accurately referred to as “my longest relationship” when they gave me and three other outgoing board members customized plaques to commemorate our tenure. My plaque featured a handwritten note from a Summer Scholars student, thanking donors for supporting the program, along with a drawing of a giant bird telling two kids sharing a book to “Be Cool.”

It’s terrific advice for virtually any occasion, especially one as meaningful and bittersweet as this.

In reflecting on my time on the board, I’ve realized just how fulfilling of an experience it has been – not just because it’s an organization that does an incredible amount of good in its community, but also because of what I’ve learned about serving on a board that I will carry forward.

In the six years since I joined the board, the organization experienced periods of both transition and tremendous growth. There were staff changes, budget shortfalls, and a new president to hire. There were various crises to address, new programs and fundraising strategies to implement, and a new strategic vision to carry forward, which includes an exciting rebranding effort that will be unveiled later this year.

Board service is an important part of the social sector, but one that is sometimes treated as an after-thought involving transactional tasks of check-writing and rubber-stamping. But effective board work – which I got to witness and engage in first hand – is not just a question of showing up. It demands having a strong personal belief in an organization, its mission, and its vision. It’s a matter of thoroughly understanding the core work and culture of an organization. And it’s a matter of providing the right balance of guidance and support, and fulfilling the responsibilities of governance and strategic direction.

Having now spent several years working under a board at two different organizations, and serving on one at Summer Scholars, my own understanding of what’s at stake and what makes a strong board has evolved considerably. And in reflecting on this experience, I wanted to share four takeaways to carry forward in future board service and nonprofit involvement.

Get to know where the organization is in its life cycle. There are many iterations of the nonprofit life-cycle to draw on, but understanding your organization’s place on it will be helpful in carving out a role, engaging at the right level, and contributing your expertise. The differences between a startup phase, a growth phase, and an established phase demand different roles and responsibilities from a board, as well as staff. And understanding whether an organization is staff-driven or board-driven or a combination is essential to right-sizing a board member’s role.

Find your niche.  New board members are often recruited with some specific expertise or perspective in mind – whether it’s financial acumen, program expertise, or communications experience. But a board member’s role doesn’t have to be confined to just that. Particularly with leaner, or less established organizations, there are numerous opportunities to engage in and contribute to other areas, whether it’s organizational development, hiring and personnel, fundraising, marketing, volunteer work, or other facets.

Contribute more than a check. The expectation of writing big checks isn’t necessarily a myth when serving on nonprofit boards, but for many organizations, the inability to do that is not a disqualifier. Non-monetary support and contributions are sometimes just as impactful as cutting a check. Providing leadership, sharing program expertise, supporting events, volunteering, and other efforts to support staff are also valuable to the overall growth and effectiveness of an organization.

Trust the staff. This doesn’t mean forgoing accountability and performance management, quite the contrary. It does mean providing the room and space for staff to do their jobs. Each organization has a different board/staff dynamic. For some, the only go-between is the CEO or executive director, which comes with its own tradeoffs in transparency and accountability. For others, it’s a more collaborative relationship, where board members engage with staff around key issues and projects. The latter can often result in a more thorough understanding of the core competencies of staff, help avoid micromanagement, and foster a stronger sense of trust between staff and board.

Serving on a nonprofit board is no small thing. You become an ambassador of sorts. You help set a direction for what is necessary and what is possible. And you take on a collective responsibility for an organization and its mission. It’s a tall order, and finding your way is not always easy. But board service – and strong board leadership – is an essential part of the success and effectiveness of social change and community organizations. It’s also an incredibly fulfilling way to contribute your time, energy, and expertise in supporting issues you care deeply about.

And when your time is up and they recognize your service, just remember what the bird tells the kids in the drawing on the plaque: be cool. 


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