Serving on a volunteer board of directors can be a study in frustration or one of the great pleasures of your life.
If you and the organization are not well matched, you may be bored at best and appalled at worst. But when both volunteer board member and organization are in tune with one another the experience can be both personally and professionally rewarding.
Doreen Pendgracs, a veteran board member, has written a friendly guide to board service. Before You Say Yes...A Guide to the Pleasures and Pitfalls of Volunteer Boards (Dundurn Press, 2010) answers your questions, even those you haven't yet thought of.
Expectations and Compatibility
I particularly liked the chapter, "Are We Compatible?" Pendgracs says we should think about why we are being recruited for a board and then make sure that the reasons match what we can or want to provide to a board.
Board members, Pendgracs says, are recruited for several reasons:
- their profession. There is a range of expertise and talent that most boards need. That is why you're likely to find a lawyer or two, an accountant, a medical professional, or a former teacher, depending on what kind of organization it is.
- their constituency. An organization might look for someone from a particular geographic location, from a certain group or political party. An organization may need directors who represent particular groups of stakeholders.
- their bank account. Nonprofits, especially, need money. They are likely to want people on the board who can become donors, and just as important, know people who can become donors.
- their age. The organization may be looking for young people who bring a fresh perspective or people with experience.
- their reputation. An organization's board may be attracted to someone who has a noteworthy history or is known for some unique ability or achievement.
- they know someone on the board. This shouldn't be the only reason one is recruited for a board, but most board members are colleagues, close friends, or neighbors to someone who already serves on the board.
Try to figure out, or simply ask, why you are being recruited. Then make sure that you will be able and willing to fulfill those expectations.
What Should You Know Before Saying Yes to Serving on a Board?
Besides knowing why you are being recruited and thus the board's expectations of you, it is important, according to Pendgracs, to find out some other crucial information, such as:
- how long is my term?
- what is the work style of this board? Is it a "working" board where I will be expected to fulfill a role that might be done by paid staff in a larger organization? Is it an advisory board, where one gives input but not much else? Perhaps it's a blend of oversight and hands-on.
- how and where are meetings held? Are they on site? Across the country, or virtual? How often does the board meet? How is business conducted between meetings? How much time will I be expected to devote to board business?
- is there a cost associated with attending meetings? Are board members reimbursed for travel expenses? Is there an honorarium?
- is there an expectation of a specific donation to the organization? Will I be expected to be engaged directly in fundraising?
- is the organization financially healthy? Is the organization willing to disclose all of its financial information?
- is there adequate Directors and Officers (D&O) insurance to protect board members in case of a lawsuit or other disaster?
- does the organization have a good training program for new directors?
- how formal or informal is the board? Check that against your own preferences and needs.
What Are Your Rights as a Board Member?
Pendgracs wants all potential board members (and the organizations that recruit them) to know that they have certain rights. These include:
- full and proper training
- full disclosure before voting on any issue.
- a safe and secure environment in which to conduct meetings.
- to insist that the organization engage outside expertise when needed.
- that the organization carry sufficient general liability and directors and officer insurance to ensure that the organization and the directors are indemnified against risk.
What should you do if you feel uncomfortable or feel that your rights are being violated? "Resign," says Pendgracs. "If you find yourself on a board that is clearly not a good fit, resign -- or at the very least, do not renew your term. It's better than banging your head against the wall."
Before You Say Yes has so much great advice and tips, even though it is a short and easy-to-read book. The book is useful whether you serve on your homeowner's association board, a nonprofit board, your church board, or a business and professionally oriented board. You'll learn board etiquette and responsibilities, about Robert's Rules of Order, how to deal with difficult people, and what a gift board membership can be to you personally and professionally.