People occasionally ask me about serving on a nonprofit board. Sometimes, they believe strongly in a cause and want to get more involved. Or they’re interested in the responsibilities and community commitment that comes with the position. While specific regulations vary from state to state, I tell anyone considering board participation to expect three main duties of their service: care, loyalty and obedience.
But before we take a closer look at those duties, let’s talk about the board’s role as a whole.
First, and most importantly, a nonprofit board defines the mission of the organization and sets goals to help realize that mission. If you’re joining an existing organization, you’ll usually find the mission is already well-defined. It may not change much over time, but the activities used to achieve the mission should be dynamic and flexible.
Boards also are responsible for fiscal, reputational and continuity management. There are many details within those categories, but essentially, it’s all about the business side of the organization. Is the money handled with care? Are the organization’s employees treated well? Is the organization structured in a way that will allow its work to continue into the future? These concerns all are board obligations.
So back to your duties as a board member.
The duty of Care
If you join a board of directors, or any committee of an organization, you are expected to conduct yourself with care and diligence. For example, you should:
- Attend the meetings often
- Prepare by reviewing materials in advance
- Participate in the discussions
- Don’t allow your judgment to be overly influenced by others
You aren’t expected to know everything (and you cannot possibly redo the work of the organization’s accountant, for example), but you are expected to provide independent oversight and ensure decisions are made with the best information available to you. Committees will do much of the work in an organization, but the board is ultimately responsible for the decisions that are made.
The duty of Loyalty
In essence, as a director, you must only act in the best interest of the organization and be careful not to use the position for personal gain. From the moment you accept the position, you work for the benefit of the organization, not yourself. If it feels to you like a matter is a conflict of interest, it probably is, and you should remove yourself from the discussions and decision.
The duty of Obedience
Directors of a nonprofit organization are responsible for determining (or continuing) the mission of the group. Once the mission is established, the board is charged with remaining faithful to the mission by establishing, reviewing and occasionally changing bylaws, and following the original Articles of Incorporation established when the group was created. Being obedient to the rules of the organization must always come first.
These all are important aspects to consider when you’re deciding to join a board, and as long as you keep them in mind, you’re sure to benefit your organization.
Serving in your community is a privilege, and if you haven’t already launched your journey, I highly encourage you to find a place to make a difference. Start with an organization you are passionate about, and have a good long conversation with the executive director or board president. From there, you may be on your way to being the caring, loyal and mission-obedient board member your organization needs.
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