Being a board member is a responsibility, not a sinecure.
By Elmira Bayrasli
The possibilities of the boardroom, board director Lucy P. Marcus believes, should aspire to the ideals that legendary medieval English King Arthur created at his famous table. There, knights gathered in effort and equality to erect a vast empire that changed history.
Change is one of the incentives driving individuals to join boards. Armed with good will and intentions and a collection of applicable skills to help entrepreneurial ventures, multinational corporations and non-profits catapult to success. It is this intention that has taken New York-born and UK-based Marcus to throw her passion behind sitting on boards as well as writing about best practices for boards and advising entrepreneurs, corporations and non-profits on how to develop strong boards. Board development, Marcus notes, is surprisingly something many entrepreneurs, who are so focused on their respective innovations, treat as an after thought. The situation is similar at non-profits. As a life-long member of this field, that caught my eye.
“People need to think of non-profit board seats as a deep responsibility and a job that requires due care and attention,” Marcus says. She believes this because at a non-profit there is so much at stake. To begin, the very cause of the organization is at stake as is its survival. That’s a higher ethical imperative than just ensuring the health of the organization’s bottom-line. “A non-profit board is looking after the governance of the organization and safeguarding its mission,” Marcus says, and “as a board member, I feel this responsibility even more keenly, as it is even more critical in difficult economic times and where headlines are creating doubts in the minds of donors and stakeholders.”
Ironically, although they don’t generate revenues, the bottom-line is just as important to non-profits as it is to for-profits. Their sustainability is dependent on it. Hence, Marcus points out, many are compelled to elect board members without serious thought to all the things board members can bring to a boardroom. Unlike for-profit boards where members get compensated, non-profit boards, particularly in the U.S., require members to fund raise on behalf of the organization. This is good and bad.
Fundraising is good where you can find a person to sign on to a non-profit’s mission and campaign on its behalf. Yet, the need to fund raise also runs the risk of building a board that is focused only on numbers and not the governance or long term development of the organization.
Marcus points out there is “real value to having different skills” on non-profit boards. Whether in finance, marketing or human resources, individuals asked to join a non-profit board should bring added value to the institution – and its staff. Because the majority of non-profits bootstrap their operations, taking care to “minimize overhead,” they often make do with a small staff that is expected to juggle several responsibilities, few of which they are experts in.
Non-profit board members can provide mentoring to an organization’s staff. Matching the skills of board members to staff and mentoring is something that should be part of a non-profit board member’s responsibilities. Interestingly, Marcus points out they are responsibilities rather than obligations. By mentoring staff, a non-profit board member gets the chance to see the inner workings of the outfit, add value to the operation and at the same time establish good will among a team.
The launch of a non-profit is another challenge of building a non-profit board. Unlike established Fortune 500 companies that hire and fire CEOs, non-profits, like start-ups, often exist because of a particular individual. Marcus notes there is a delicate balance to be had between the CEO and the board. The challenge is ensuring the board does not see this individual as infallible or as a secretary. A non-profit CEO must “execute on a plan that they can be held accountable for,” and a board member must not micromanage on that execution, but still must keep a close eye on the governance of the organization.
Note: An expanded version of this article has appeared on the Forbes website.
About Elmira Bayrasli
Elmira Bayrasli writes and works on economic development issues. She is the Director of Communications at the Peace Dividend Trust. From 2006 – October 2010, she was the Vice President of Policy & Outreach at Endeavor. She is writing a book about entrepreneurship and development. Elmira tweets @endeavoringE.
Talkback Readers: Are you (or have you ever been) on a board? What tips on being a good board member can you share with Talkback?