In our work as not-for-profit auditors, we’ve worked with, presented to, and witnessed many different boards of directors. We’ve learned a lot from the most effective boards about how to lead and how to participate in a team of volunteers tasked with running an organization.
Board Members’ Primary Duties
Regardless of the mission of your not-for-profit, your board of directors will be tasked with three key duties that determine a few prerequisites for being qualified to serve on the board:
- Duty of Care — The board is required to exercise prudent, reasonable, and sound judgment when making decisions. The board of directors is ultimately responsible for the organization, and they hire an Executive Director to execute their plans.
- Duty of Loyalty — Before joining an organization’s board, members must prove they have no conflicts of interest. They are bound to remain objective and loyal to the organization they serve in all dealings.
- Duty of Obedience — Members of the board of directors must obey both the laws of the state and country as well as professional standards and the organization’s own rules.
Before hiring any board member, make sure they are able and willing to perform these key responsibilities for the organization.
Qualities of an Excellent Board of Directors
When evaluating volunteers to serve on your non-profit’s board, make sure to look for qualities beyond the resume and previous experience to find passionate, bought-in board members. Successful boards have:
- Passion for the mission: Members on the board of directors should be there for a reason, whether they have a personal connection or a specific calling toward serving the organization.
- Diversity: A well-rounded board of directors will include people of different backgrounds, racial groups, age groups, genders, and careers.
- Self-awareness: People on the board should have tools at their disposal to better understand themselves in the context of those around them, like personality tests, skills assessments, or strength finders. Organizers of the board should avoid having too many of a certain personality style or skill set to maintain the diversity and productivity of the team.
- A collaborative spirit: A board driven by collaboration will be far more effective than one divided by competition.
- The desire to grow and learn: The board of directors steers the organization and helps it innovate. People who are passionate about their personal development will bring increasing value to the board as they increase their own value.
- Clear expectations: Set goals and establish guidelines for board members to see how their contribution of time and effort makes the organization succeed.
Though not every board member may check all the boxes all the time, those who exhibit these types of traits will generally add more value to your board and through their duties help the organization succeed in its mission.
Two Ways to Go Further
Beyond succeeding in their primary duties, some boards have an even greater impact on their organization when they work together and have a deep bench.
Have your board members constantly on the lookout for additional or future volunteers. Once you define the qualities you look for in a board member, share it with your team so they can recruit others and deepen your bench. With a list of volunteers available to step up, your board is less at risk for unexpected vacancies in key roles.
And to help your board feel even more closely aligned to the mission of the organization, have the staff members and board members team up on projects or other responsibilities (within reason). When board members are involved directly and in their strength zones, they buy into the mission more easily and become more effective team members in the process.
The Meaning of the Team
Your organization’s board of directors is arguably the most powerful engine to drive your mission. Be intentional when piecing it together and it will prove more efficient and supportive than one thrown together by default.