A few weeks ago I wrote about the challenge of finding volunteers to serve on boards of directors. In that article I mentioned that an important component in finding and recruiting board members is clarifying the expectation your organization has for them. After all, it’s hard to commit to something when you don’t know what it entails. Clarifying your agency’s board expectations is a foundational piece of developing a strong board.
An organization can set any expectations that are relevant and important to them. They can be as simple or as complex as needed. Personally, I like to outline board expectations into these seven categories:
- Executive Director Support
- Community Conduit
- Fiduciary Governance
- Intellectual Contributions
- Mission and Outcome Focus
- Fundraising and Storytelling
Organizations that take the time to clarify each component for their board will have a great tool for recruiting, managing and accountability. Because of the unique nature of nonprofits – where the Executive Director often directs the work of the board, which is also their boss – this tool can be crucial to ensuring that the board can hold itself accountable. Let’s explore each of these categories and what can be included.
In the simplest of terms, attendance means showing up to board meetings. You may want to set a percentage of meetings they are expected to attend. It is a good practice to have set board meetings, held on the same day each month and at the same times.
Frequency of board meetings should be set based on the needs of the organization and the work of the board. That being said, I generally recommend monthly or every other month. When a group meets less frequently it can be difficult to maintain engagement and connection. However, sometimes geographic constraints or the work of the organization may require fewer meetings. In those cases it might make sense to have longer meetings.
In addition to attendance at board meetings, an organization may want to set expectations around attending committee meetings, special events, trainings, programming and more. Some agencies require a minimum number of hours from their volunteers each month.
This category is also where you can define your board terms. Spell out when terms begin and end, how long they are, the ability to serve consecutive terms, and maximum length a board member can serve.
Partner with Executive Director
Running a nonprofit is a big job! Supporting the Executive Director is one of the most helpful things a board can do. When given projects or tasks it should be an expectation that the board member executes them completely and on time. Often if a board member doesn’t follow through, that work falls on the Exec. That puts the Exec in a very awkward position of having to hold one of their bosses accountable or just doing it themselves.
Secondly in this category, there should be the expectation that the board drives the strategies of the organization. The more that the governance volunteers can focus on this aspect of the organization, the more the Exec can focus on the operations. Looking outward and focusing on strategies to advance the work of the organization is an expectation of the board.
Lastly, no one knows everything or can have their finger on the pulse of what is going on in the community all the time. Board members should be available to the Exec when they need advice, insight or special expertise. Volunteers must give their input with the best interest of the organization as their top priority.
Conduit to the Community
Having a board of directors multiplies the number of eyes, ears and voices in the community on behalf of an agency. Board members should be out, seeing what is going on in the community related to the work of the organization, listening to what people are saying about it, and sharing about the outcomes and impact. In addition, they should be bringing information back to the board to discuss and help with decision making and strategizing.
Some organizations utilize their volunteers to promote their work. This can involve expectations around attending networking groups or service clubs, or even hosting house parties to educate the public on the organization. Other agencies have their board submit names for “friend raising.” This involves bringing more people into their circle of organizational advocates, to nurture them into volunteers, donors, or even future board members. There are organizations that require a board member to secure their successor before their term expires. These are all options to consider when developing expectations.
This component is a little more tricky to quantify and measure. The board is responsible for the financial and legal integrity of the organization. Generally the Treasurer takes the responsibility of reviewing financial statements and interpreting them for the larger board. The expectation of the board is that they make decisions that are in the best financial and legal interest of the organization. It is expected that they led from a place of selflessness.
Every board meeting should include some sort of generative discussion. It is best if the discussion is around strategy and organizational advancement; however, sometimes the input of volunteers on operational topics is important. That being said, board members should be prepared for discussion and ready to contribute their thoughts, perspectives and ideas.
Not everyone is comfortable sharing in large groups. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have valuable input. Some volunteers may submit their thoughts in writing after they have had time to process the discussion. When measuring board effectiveness it can be important to recognize and honor these differences in contribution styles.
Mission and Outcomes Focused
Every governance volunteer should take the time to understand the critical social issue that the organization is working to address; as well as the unique way they are tackling it. They should be familiar with and support policies. And they should understand the organization’s needs.
The staff (whether paid or volunteer) are responsible for the operations and program/service delivery. It is the board’s job to make sure that the programs/services are fulfilling the mission. They are the ones who need to be driving the measurement of program impact and connecting it to the purpose of the organization.
Lastly in this section, the board is responsible for ensuring clarity around the values of the organization. Clarifying values helps with decision making, recruiting staff and volunteers, and communicating who you are and what you do. Board members are expected to be the ones setting the example of how the organizational values look in action.
Fundraising and Storytelling
Board members should be expected to give a personally meaningful financial donation to the organization. This is important for so many reasons! Why should anyone else give to a nonprofit if the governance board doesn’t feel strongly enough about the cause to give? Why would a grantor award a funds to an organization that doesn’t have a passionate and committed board? It must start with the board.
In addition to giving, board members should be expected to use their network, connections, and circle of influence to advance the organization. This includes asking them to contribute. I believe that this is one of the most valuable aspects of the nonprofit sector. They are compelled to tell people how they are making the world a better place and asking them to come alongside and help.
This can be challenging for young nonprofits, or organizations that attract volunteers who have never served on a board. That’s where the phrase “personally meaningful” or “personally significant” can be helpful. An agency may set their initial expectation at $10/month, then ask those with greater means to consider an additional personally significant contribution. Special events can be a good place for volunteers to practice their storytelling skills and work on “friend raising” before they advance to fundraising.
If the cause is important and the organization is making a difference, every board member needs to be giving. Period.
You may notice that none of this is about daily operations. That’s because that is not the board’s role. However, with very young or very small nonprofits, there can be some cross over. As you develop your board expectations, I recommend you keep them focused on the governance side of the organization. This keeps it clean, and if/when the organization grows, the board will know what is expected of them in their role.
Once you and your board have established their expectations, create a tool for tracking. Quantify as much as you can and put it in a spreadsheet. Put each board member’s name down the side and regularly evaluate how everyone is doing. At a minimum the board president/chair should look at it quarterly. You can also include it into your board packets. That way everyone knows where they stand and they can help hold each other accountable. One less awkward job for the Exec to do!
Does your organization need help establishing expectations. These can be challenging conversations. It can help to have someone from outside facilitate the discussion. If so, I would love to help! Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com to learn more. Let’s connect!
Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofits and small businesses.