Top Ten List For Board & Volunteers – Part One

I want to thank those who responded to my “New Years’ Resolution” post last month.  I clearly hit a sensitive area and want to stay with that theme for a few more posts and explore more topics around how to create and sustain a healthy organizational culture.

In the spirit of late night talk show host David Letterman (and fellow Ball State University alum) I thought it would be fun to share my “Top Ten List” for non-profit boards and their volunteers to think about.  There is so much to discuss, process and digest, this will be the first of a two-part series.  Let’s jump right in:

No. 1:  “Nonprofit” is a tax status, not a business plan.  This is the Golden Rule and No. 1 for a very important reason:  if your organization’s expenses consistently exceed its revenue month after month and year after year, you will become what’s known as a “sunset organization”.  Translated:  the sun will set on your organization and you will cease to exist.  (Note to readers: At that point the remaining nine of my Top Ten List are irrelevant).

For some reason, we in the nonprofit world wear that badge with honor (similar to the starving artist) and often feel guilty if we make a profit in any given month or heaven forbid, the year. Of course there are IRS guidelines around profits and the goal is to not be considered “for profit”; however, healthy organizations have well-constructed budgets, sustainable programs and multiple revenue streams consisting of donors, grants, program income and oftentimes fundraising events.  All of this with oversight by a qualified finance committee and reported to the board regularly through timely and accurate financial statements.

No. 2: Know and understand your 3 Duties as a Board Member – Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty and Duty of Obedience.  I’m guessing that most board members aren’t aware of the fact that several states have statutes that reflect guiding principles for nonprofit corporate law. Iowa is no different and board members must meet the standards of conduct and attention in serving nonprofits responsibly.

Duty of Care – This is the level of competence expected of a board member and that they are exercising reasonable care including diligence, attention, and skill when making decisions or providing oversight. In other words, you need to be engaged in what is going on and aware that policies and procedures are being followed on a routine basis.

Duty of Loyalty – A standard of faithfulness; a board member must never use information obtained as a member for personal gain, but must act in the best interest of the organization. Boards and committees discuss sensitive topics that sometimes put us in awkward positions.  This is why having board members (and some volunteers depending on committees) sign Confidentiality Agreements and Conflict of Interest documents and have them on file.  This simple act protects everyone including the organization corporately.

Duty of Obedience – Requires board members to be faithful to the nonprofit’s mission by ensuring (among other things) donated funds are handled responsibly; federal and state filings are timely and accurate; and the organization is complying with by-laws and articles of incorporation (see previous New Years’ Resolutions post). 

(Source: Iowa Principles and Practices for Charitable Nonprofit Excellence)

No. 3: You are not staff. This is a tough one – particularly if you are passionate about the organization and the work it does in the community.  Nonetheless, the board has hired professional, competent and trained staff to run the day-to-day operations of the organization.  The role of the board is to provide vision, direction and oversight – typically through a Strategic Plan – to ensure the organization stays on the right path.  Staff is in place to implement and execute on that plan while volunteers are there to serve at the pleasure of the board and staff – not run the organization.

No. 4:  Do not immediately join a board of directors – “speed date” the organization first.  These next two occasionally get me into hot water and while similar, I feel they are different enough to warrant separation.  I always cringe when I hear an Executive Director share the news of how they’ve just recruited the brand new person to town to their board of directors.  Typically this is the new plant manager, superintendent, executive director, pastor, CEO, President or other senior something filling a very important or prominent position in the community.  Usually the result of a promotion or transfer of the previous person.  Upon this news, I first ask:  Why the rush and what’s the hurry?  My second question is:  And what do they know about your organization, the role you have in the community and how they can possibly help?  It’s right about here that I find myself in that hot water…

I think it’s safe to say that boards are constantly shorthanded and don’t want to miss out on finding top talent; on the other hand more “warm bodies” are not the solution. My suggestion is to first reach out for a chance to learn more about them and each other.  Visit with them about their passions, what they’ve done in the past, why they are here and what they hope to accomplish while they’re here.  Then when appropriate reach out to that person and invite them to an upcoming event, (see No. 5 below) and see if you have a committee or task force they could become a part of and engaged with – this is the “speed dating” part of the process. Everyone gets a chance to learn about the other; And, if it’s a right fit for them – consider joining as a board member or some other role that is more appropriate and fits their schedule and needs as a volunteer and leader in the community.  I honestly believe this is the step we brush off in our rush to get board members that leads to so many board problems downstream.

More hot water: I think it’s safe to say that there is nothing more challenging than having to ask a board member to step down from the board of directors; therefore, let’s get to know each other first.

No. 5:  Do what you love and are passionate about – not what your friend “guilted” you into doing or begged you into joining.  I know we were being polite when we said “yes” to our friend’s arm-twisting invitation to join (see No. 4 above) and usually this is well intentioned; but if this isn’t something you’re passionate about – politely step away and move on to something that catches your attention. This is your “free time” invest it wisely!  You can support your friend’s passion through donations or attending their events – the worst you can do is go against your intuition and have buyer’s remorse two months later while sitting in a board meeting and wanting to be anywhere else on the planet.

Oftentimes on boards where attendance starts becoming a problem, a few quick interviews uncovers the fact that members were invited by friends who have since left the board or moved on from the community – leaving the member with no real connection to the board or passion for what they’re doing. Don’t let that be you.

There you have it…my first 5 of the top 10. There are so many great organizations doing great work in all of our communities.  Take the time to better understand how you want to invest your personal time, talent and treasures.  Then explore, research and “date” those organizations that align with your passions.  They’ll love having you.

I hope that while you were reading this you caught yourself nodding in agreement or disbelief; or rolling your eyes or maybe even a chuckle as they resonated with you and your experiences. I also hope that you found something useful in all of this as well.  In the meantime, if you would like to learn more about any of these topics – or disagree with me on them.  Please don’t hesitate to drop us a line or give us a call at the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation.

Stay tuned for Part Two. In the meantime, go out and be great!