Rethinking the Role of the Nonprofit Board

I recently spoke with an Executive Director about joining his Board of Directors. I think his organization is accomplishing important work and is making a difference in our community. I’m truly excited to be a part of what they are doing.

Earlier this week, I had dinner with one of my former board members, and good friend. He laughed when I told him about the possibility of joining a Board of Directors – mostly because he knows how much my own board members, although terrific people, drove me crazy. A board is like a whole separate team that you have to manage – except that they are also your boss, and you are “managing up” to a group of people, rather than just one supervisor. Plus, as the Executive Director, you’re fundraising, overseeing programs (if not running them yourself), serving as the IT and HR Directors, and making sure that you have cash on hand to meet payroll. On any given day, if not everyday, it can be overwhelming.

In the midst of having all of these conversations, news broke that the DC Trust will be dissolved to cover debts from exorbitant spending on and by staff.  This is the second time the organization has been rocked by scandal. One of the first questions I asked myself upon hearing the news was, “Where was the board?”

Then I thought about it some more. Nonprofit boards are not paid positions; they are volunteers. Some of those volunteers join a board because their company “highly recommends” that they do so as a professional development opportunity. Others want to have another activity on their resume that helps them look good, or creates a possible career path. Some board members volunteer because they want to give back. Most board members enthusiastically support program and strategic planning. Some board members are adept at planning events that raise awareness or help with fundraising. Despite their fiduciary responsibility, very few board members like to get involved with the financial aspect – because it’s not as interesting and is usually outside of their comfort zone.  Thus, it’s no wonder that nonprofits often find themselves in a financial pickle. Additionally, there is no recourse for boards that don’t pay attention to the finances. If the nonprofit goes out of business, the board members are not shareholders that lose equity, nor are they out of a job. They might experience a bit of discomfort, but that is about it.


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