By Ruby Maddox
The first board position I ever held was , naturally, on the board of the nonprofit I helped create, Gardening the Community(GtC). This however was not the first board I had worked with. When the project was still under a larger organization (NOFA/Mass) we answered to their board. It was the first time I really had experience in seeing how a board functioned.
In grad school I learned more about board governance and stewardship, which came in extra handy as GtC began to put together its first advisory board.
I learned that boards were essentially the guardians of the organization and had a responsibility to the health and care of the org and its stakeholders.
Putting together an organization’s first board is no small feat. (Establishing a solid structure to the board eventually required outside intervention from a skilled consultant.) When putting together GtC’s board, we chose people in our community who had contributed in some way to the organization and had a sense of who we were and where we were trying to go. Some had served on boards before and some like me, were first-timers.
While it seems more people are choosing to serve on boards these days, many people still shy away from joining a board, believing that they take up too much time, are a waste of time, disorganized, require expertise, or are an unnecessary liability.
I’m not going to lie, some of this can be true of some organizations (I’ll talk more about the liability stuff later), but it’s all about finding the right fit, after-all board service is just another form of volunteer/community service.
Board members not only watch over the organization, they increase the capacity of the organization. As we’ve mentioned, many, many, many times before, CBOs are often under-staffed and under-resourced. A good board can help raise or contribute funds to the organization, contribute or source in-kind donations/services, or recruit other volunteers.
If you’re passionate about a cause serving on the board of a CBO addressing that issue can be a great way to make an impact, since you are enabling the organization to be more effective in their work.
Be Willing to Work / Be Willing to Commit
Don’t just join a board for the status. Be there to contribute your time and your talent. Find out what the requirements are up front. How often is the board required to meet? What roles and responsibilities do board members hold? Remember, you don’t need to be the expert but you should be willing to show up, participate, and follow-through.
Board Culture is REAL!
Every board has a different “flavor”. Some boards can be super conservative in their functioning and others more laid back. At GtC, food is ESSENTIAL to any board meeting. Since, as an organization, we believe in the value of good food and its role in our lives, there’s always an emphasis on providing and sharing food at meetings. (No cheese and crackers for us!) Because we also value youth leadership, at least 3 members of our board are youth.
Since you’ll be spending a substantial amount of time with people on the board, find out if it’s the right kind of crowd for you.
Committee Yourself First
Find out if you can join a board committee first. Board committees handle board tasks that are too big or complicated to be handled by the entire board and require a smaller more agile team to work on them. Committees meet separately from the board and work on small projects and submit suggestions to the board for approval. Committees are often made up of a few board members and non-board volunteers. Committee work can be a great way to get a sense of how the board operates and the challenges facing the organization.
What to Watch Out For
(This is that pesky liability part). Some boards carry not only an ethical responsibility but a legal responsibility to the organization. This has largely to do with the fact that board members are stewards of a public resource. A public resource with a federal status designation. It is not their money they are managing. Therefore boards can be held legally accountable for mismanagement and maleficence. You should 1) Find out if the board carries Board of Director’s insurance. 2) Find out if there is a fiscal sponsor that holds this liability. 3) Find out how the funds of the organization are managed and how often the status of those funds are reviewed by the board, before agreeing to serve.
A good board should provide proper orientation for new members or at the very least be willing to seek out or offer resources to to new members to help transition them into their new role.