There were two similar situations I came across recently where Board members of two charities have no ideas of what they’re supposed to do. For the first one, the organization is pretty well-structured where they have a full-time Executive Director managing the day-to-day operation while their Board of Directors consisting of veteran volunteers acts as the ultimate governing body. Not bad, right? Yes indeed. Look closer, however, I noticed that the role and responsibility of Board members were not clearly defined. Surprisingly (or should I say not surprised), none of these Board members can give me even a rough idea of their financial picture, not even by the Treasurer. On the other case, I had once introduced a prospect to one of the Board members of a medium-sized local charity at a press conference, she turned her back to the prospect astonishingly and kept talking to me of another organization of which she’s also engaging in heavily.
In both cases, I do not have the slightest doubt of their dedication in engaging in the frontline fieldwork with the organizations and appreciated their contribution and commitment wholeheartedly. Yet, there is a gulf of difference in being a Board member and a fieldwork volunteer. Considering Board members are those who are in the driver's seat in guiding the strategic development of the entire organization, it is, therefore, a necessity in defining clearly the role and responsibility of them at the first place and communicate it unmistakably; otherwise, how could they drive properly and effectively?
To start with, an organization has to distinguish three things clearly first and foremost in this regard. First, what do they expect their Board members do and contribute to the organization? Second, organization need to think thoroughly of what criteria they would use in assessing and selecting Board members based on the afore expectations? Last but not least, what are the roles and responsibilities of them once they accepted the invite to come onboard? Taking other organizations as a reference, Board members are expecting to do/contribute in either of the following ways typically:
- Contributing financially or help to raise fund for the organization
- Utilizing their network in helping the organization to reach out in supporting their advocacy work
- Representing the organization at public events and advocacy
- Taking up the leading role in steering the wheel for the organization
- Helping in cultivating and/or stewarding of A-list prospects, major donors and veteran volunteers
- Passing down their respective expertise in empowering their staff in doing their jobs professionally
- Being internal advisors on the organization's operations
- As the manager in supervising the daily operations
- A combination of any two or a few of them
For sure, every organization has its uniqueness and hence their own set of expectation in addition to those listed above. Once such expectation was determined, the organization has to figure out what selection criteria they would apply correspondingly in screening and selecting potential Board members. Yes, long time volunteers can be a good source of picking new Board members, but a more important question that has to answer is whether these volunteers have the expected quality or ability as listed earlier. Although having a big heart to help is essential while having experience in serving the organization is preferred, having those required qualities is crucial in this case.
Let's say, if the organization concluded that they need to strengthen their fundraising capacity, it is reasonable to look out for someone who has the knowledge in the area or who can connect the organization to prospects. I have heard from time to time from smaller organizations saying that due to their size, level of brand awareness and network, they have difficulties in recruiting Board members and hence they welcome whoever who come forward to be Board members, in particular, their longtime volunteers. But this should never ever be the mindset to adopt in Board member recruitment. It is because the organization is small and less-known, it is even more relevant and important they should look for someone who can help empower the organization, lift it to the next level in its operation strategically rather than just having someone to fill the seat simply for the sake of having a Board of Directors as requested by the regulation or memorandum of articles of association. Considered that Board members are supposed to contribute to the organization in a way vary from being merely a frontline service volunteer, it is nevertheless obligatory to outline in no uncertain term of what their specific role should be and how they are expected to realize such roles.
There are a number of ways in achieving these. One, having an orientation in welcoming newly joined members and utilize the occasion in going through with them the specific roles and responsibilities that are resting on them. At such occasion, new Board members should be coached in a structured manner on what and how they could do for the organization. Similarly, organizations can organize retreats among Board members and perhaps staff as well where one of the agenda items is to refresh of Board members of their roles and responsibilities. Two, organize designed Board member training when necessary to help them to acquire the indispensable skillsets. Three, organizations can have their own set of Board member manuals of which Board members' roles, responsibilities and rights were stated plainly and this serves as the central document in directing the Board's activities.
This manual has to be reviewed and revised from time to time in response to the recurrent and renewing internal and external situations. I happened to know an art organization of which most of its Board members are amateur art enthusiasts who have very little exposure in business or organizational management in general. As a result, directions and suggestions they made are mostly from the art appreciation and promotion perspectives which serves good from the art circle's standpoint but never the overall social one. Worse, such suggestions sometimes went against their strategies on, for example; fundraising, communications, event organization.
If you are serious about your organization's organic development, it's time to review your Board's composition and see if there is any need for reformation before others leapt forward of the development curve than you do. Again, like supporters and ordinary volunteers, Board members have to nurture before they can really contribute and do good to the organization in a meaningful way.