How to be a successful board member for a nonprofit

Businesspeople looking to make a difference in their community through participation on the board of directors of a nonprofit should approach the search just like any job search.

A successful board member is one whose commitment, skills and motivation match those of the nonprofit.

And success generally depends on the volunteer board member’s ability to bring the same focus to a nonprofit as she brings to a corporate position.

“The skill sets for a corporate board are very similar to those for a nonprofit board,” says Karen Barsell, the chief executive officer and president of United Way of Northern Nevada and the Sierra.

But while the skills may be similar, the responsibilities of a board member at a nonprofit may be even greater, says Beverly Lassiter, a partner in NP Dynamic, a Reno company that provides consulting services to nonprofits.

A nonprofit board member, she says, acts as the steward of donors’ money, ensuring that donations are spent wisely and ensuring that the nonprofit meets clearly established goals.

Adds Lassiter, “The board represents the interests of the donors as well as the interests of the constituency.”

(The Nevada Attorney General has prepared a guide to the legal responsibilities of board members. A link is at

Lassiter says responsible board service requires — absolutely requires — that board members continue to ask three key questions:

What is the need in the community?

What are the deliverables of this nonprofit, and how are they measured?

What is the long-term strategy that will allow this organization to remain sustainable?

Lassiter believes, too, that board members need to be prepared to make a financial commitment to the organization, and believe that a history of giving is an important factor in identifying potential board members.

“Board members need to have significant skin in the game,” she says.

She says board members generally fall into one of three groups, and successful boards usually have some mixture of the three:

True believers, people who are passionate about the nonprofit’s cause. They provide the heart to an organization, but they don’t always bring financial and management-oversight skills to the board.

Resume-builders who have been told by their boss that they need to serve on a community board or have decided on their own that board membership is a good way to create a network of contacts. They can be strong members of a board if they use their service to develop their own business skills — including the need to focus on accountability and measurable outcomes.

Accomplished, prestigious leaders of the corporate world. They bring skillful strategic analysis and the wisdom of experience to a board, and they often can open doors to potential donors. But they need to devote time to the board that’s hard to carve out of a busy schedule.

That’s leading some organizations to new thinking about recruitment of board members, says Pete Parker, whose Reno-based NPcatalyst LLC provides consulting to nonprofit managers.

“It used to be that you recruited for affluence or influence,” Parker says.

But some smaller nonprofits these days are recruiting board members who are only to beginning to grow into positions of influence or affluence in the community. Their energy can deliver a nonprofit’s marketing message to entirely new audiences.

Barsell notes that nonprofits themselves vary widely — and not just in their mission.

A grassroots nonprofit often looks like a startup business, one in which everyone from the director to members of the board has hands-on involvement.

An established institutional nonprofit will require a board that’s focused on strategic direction and an executive team that brings the strategy to reality.

Challenges often arise, the United Way executive, when a grassroots nonprofit becomes well established and needs a different kind of leadership.

“The skill sets needed for creating are not the skill sets needed for sustaining,” says Barsell.

Given their responsibilities, Barsell says new board members should expect a solid orientation about the organization’s mission, its results and its finances. The minutes of past meetings as well as past financial statements should be part of the orientation materials.

Parker says the quality of the orientation itself is a key indicator about the state of a nonprofit.

“If you get snowed, it’s a red flag,” he says.

Other signs of trouble, he says, include a fragmented board, a board in which directors are overly involved in day-to-day management decisions or a board that doesn’t appear to have a clear direction.

If a new board member doesn’t have a financial background, he should seek a primer in how to read the organization’s income statement and balance sheet, says Lassiter.

A key question for the orientation: Making sure that board members understand the roles of the executive and the board and can keep them separate.

“What you want to create is an authentic partnership between the board and the CEO,” Barsell says.

Lassister says new board members also should make sure they understand how the nonprofit measures its effectiveness.

“Board members need to be completely accountable,” she says. “They need to do their homework. They should be asking questions all the time.”


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment