OneOC board Chairman Arnie Pinkston volunteers at the Boys & Girls Club Brea.
By Julie Holdaway

Published in the Orange County Register on May 27, 2013

With little time, nonprofits' board members need to define their duties.

Every nonprofit needs a board — strategically, and frankly, legally.

But I'm not going to lie; as important as board work is, at times it can be just plain awkward.

Board members govern an organization as volunteers, sometimes attending just two or three meetings and events a month.  In fact, a 2012 Board Source governance index report found that the average board member spends 18 hours a year with their board.

That seems low; most boards I am involved with require 4-5 hours a month. Still, 4-5 hours a month invested can mean you are governing a nonprofit, with all the fiduciary and mission impact responsibilities of a legal corporation.

Exacerbating the awkwardness is this fact: It's not always clear what the board and board members are supposed to do. (Was there a Nonprofit Boards class when you went to school?)

Legally, we can define board roles by how courts have defined them. But that's really the lowest common denominator. The real question is, beyond legal compliance, what does it take for a board to achieve the organization's potential and to advance its mission? What are those best practices?

While I am not fluent in legalese, let me take a stab at translating:

To define, protect, and advance the mission of the organization. This responsibility requires everyone on your board to have a clear understanding of the business you are in — the "what we do" and for whom we do it. It required you to develop a systematic means of measuring the work of your organization to ensure the mission drives all your activities.

To safeguard the assets (human, financial and property) of the organization. This is the area where most boards excel; generally boards are super at reading budgets and financials. In fact, your board probably spends the bulk of its meetings focused on financials and, certainly, there are ZERO arguments against good fiduciary oversight. That said, be sure that the mission drives as much of the board meeting as the fiscal oversight. (And as part of the safeguarding of assets, it is important to recognize that every board must have appropriate policies and practices against self-dealing and conflict of interest.)

To recruit, hire, support, review and, if necessary, remove the executive director. Yes, supervising the head honcho is an important role. It means more than just hiring a leader, it is making sure there's an ongoing, strong relationship between the board and executive. (In our various board trainings, I've had too many conversations about how much staff members are paid. It is the board's role to supervise the executive director/CEO. While the board approves the budget and develops compensation policies, it is not its role to indulge in conversations about staff salaries. It supervises the ED/CEO and the ED/CEO supervises staff. Hands off.)

To be ambassadors on behalf of the organization. This is an area nonprofits don't leverage nearly enough. Our board members are our spokespeople, our storytellers. They talk up our missions and organizations. There is magic in getting your board members into the community to espouse your cause and your organization. It doesn't necessarily take training; this is the corralling of passion. "I am on this board. Their work is important. Let me tell you why..."

On a less common note, while nonprofits are addicted to consensus building, it doesn't always happen. Being an ambassador also means abiding by decisions of the board.

For too many reasons, the last duty is often treated as the most onerous: to ensure adequate resources to carry out the mission.

Yes, fundraising is critical to every nonprofit and the board's role in that no less important. Surely, there is an article or 10 to be written about the art and science of fundraising. The mantra all our nonprofits live by, "Your time, talent and treasure are invaluable to our mission."

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