Three Essential Roles of Successful Board Members Giver, Gatherer, and Guide

What is the proper role of non-profit board members? In my experience, the roles are usually not well-defined, so confusion and ineffectiveness ensues. Board members want to help and participate, and the leadership wants an engaged board, but the guidelines and expectations are often unclear.

Like any team, a board is defined by its members and the rules they agree to follow. Factors which impact the board’s success include the members’ experience, their professionalism, their participation, and which the roles they agree to play.

A few months ago I wrote an article about about the benefits of sitting on boards of non-profits. As a follow up, today I want to share with you what the roles of board members should be, based on my research and experience.

board members

Many boards are simply told what is about to happen and are asked for a vote. This practice not only produces disengaged board members, it also fails to utilize the talents and ideas of its members.

Serving on boards has been a fulfilling part of my life over the last five years. For me, the greatest reward is having the opportunity to make a positive impact in the life of an organization I believe in. When organizations allow and invite their board members to play a positive and consequential role, as I believe healthy non-profits should, in return, they get engaged and happy board members.

Do you want a successful non-profit? I suggest you work on your board. Follow these three steps:

  1. Pick the right people to sit on the board. Maintain a list of qualifications.
  2. Write bylaws for the board, rules that are clear and that everyone must follow.
  3. Communicate the roles board members should have. This is the topic I will discuss below.

Three Roles of Successful Board Members

The basis of what I am sharing with you below I learned from my friend and mentor Dr. Albert Reyes, CEO of Buckner International, and from the book Governance as Leadership. You can follow Dr. Reyes’ blog here.  I have combined what I have learned from these sources with my own perspective and experience to describe three roles board members should play.

Giver

Some boards require their board members to make a yearly donation. Some even specify the amount, while others ask for a donation of any amount. Though not every board requires financial donations, I personally think it is healthy for board members to be donors for several reasons.

  • When you give, you show others (inside and outside of the organization) that the board believes in the mission at hand.
  • When you give, you are naturally more engaged.
  • For small organizations, if you require a group of people to donate a specific amount, it will cover a portion of the overhead.
  • If you give, you will inspire others to give. Board members should help raise support. They should be able to approach someone and say, “I am honored to be a donor. Would you consider joining me?”

Gatherer

Board members must gather resources from their circles of influence that will benefit the organization. What might they gather?

  • Donors – What non-profits need in general are donors or supporters.
  • Connections – It could be political or marketing related relationships that might help.
  • Volunteers – Non-profits often need volunteers who can help them achieve their mission.

Guide

There are three categories in which a board member can steer the organization:

  • Fiduciary – Boards must ensure the resources of the organization are being utilized efficiently and effectively and that the donors’ money is stewarded in an ethical manner.
    • Legal Boundaries– In the US, the board has a legal responsibility to make sure the finances are being handled in a manner that is ethical. Failure to do so, especially if board members intentionally misrepresent facts or finances for their personal gain, can land you in jail.
    • Ethical Boundaries – Even if you are not bound by such legal responsibilities, boards are the guardian for the goodwill of the donors and must follow protocol that champions ethical uprightness and transparency.
  • Strategic – Board members must help set the general course to move forward, not micromanage what should happen daily, weekly, or monthly. I believe we should not only be asking, “How do we get there?” but more importantly, “where should we go?” and, “why?” The answers to these questions establish the vision. One thing to remember about vision is it should be constantly adjusted and refreshed.
  • Generative – This idea, which is explored at length in the book Governance As Leadership, focuses on board members being utilized to generate ideas. One of the main advantages to having experienced, engaged members of the board is the ideas they bring with them. There is power in having a group of seasoned individuals discuss and debate the salient issues. Board members will not be able to bring their best thoughts to bear if they are not invited to and given the space during board meetings and between meetings. The key is that the chairman of the board, together with the organization’s president, should take the time to narrow down only a handful of issues—the most important issues—that the board, as an idea-generating-body, can and should weigh in on. How can this be done?
    • Send reports ahead of time for review and quickly vote during meetings. What often happens instead is the board members spend ten minutes looking at the financial report together, followed by another fifteen minutes of confusion and questions about what it means. That’s a waste of the board’s precious time. If the board meeting is two hours every quarter, spending twenty to thirty minutes to decipher reports is not wise. This should be sent ahead of time for everyone to review before the meeting. A vote will be taken to approve it unless there are questions about it. One challenge is that if too many items are sent in advance, it may be difficult for members to make time to go over it all in preparation of the board meeting, especially if the reports are ambiguous and without explanation. So a balance must be struck and communication be clear.
    • Give quick background information on the areas for discussion. During the meeting, sometimes a question is posed for discussion, but the background information is not given or is given in a scattered way. Therefore, before an item for discussion is introduced, prepared, succinct, and organized information must be given. Then, members should be offered a chance to ask about the background information, and that’s when discussion should occur.
    • Allow and encourage discussion. There must be time allowed in the agenda for discussion, and more than just a few minutes. Ideas given by one person can generate a better idea by another person. This takes time. Also, you want everyone to participate. I am a proponent of asking people who tend to remain quiet to pitch in without making it seem awkward. When people talk, they feel better that they participated, and everyone gets to hear different perspectives, and ideally make better decisions.
    • Discuss over several meetings. If after discussion there is not clear direction or consensus, do not proceed with a decision unless it is urgent. If more background information is needed, more time required, a sub-committee is needed for deeper study, or a strategy get-away is imperative for the whole board, then that’s what must be done.

I hope this information will help you with your leadership as a board member or an organizational leader who can impact board policy and processes.

Your Friend,
Wes Saade MD Signature

For Further Reading:

11 Benefits of Serving on a Board of Trustees
How Others Can Take You to the Stratosphere

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