Being a board member of a nonprofit organization is something not many can do for various reasons. It’s an honor to be asked, accepted, and serve on a nonprofit board no matter the size of the organization. Your decisions and voice help guide that nonprofit to better serve its purpose for the public.
Over the years of either starting nonprofits or serving on a nonprofit board, I’ve learned things the hard way. What I’m sharing is those hard lessons learned on what it really takes to be a board member.
- Don’t give up. Always keep trying. Always offer to help in ways you can.
- Know the organization’s mission and put that mission into your own words.
- Don’t offer excuses for work or tasks not done. If you took on something that you cannot handle apologize and ask for help.
- Always ask questions. Questions help you learn. No question is ever stupid. If someone makes you feel stupid for asking a question then maybe it is not the organization for you.
- Respond to emails, texts, and phone calls as quickly as possible. You don’t want to be left hanging. Don’t leave other board members or volunteers hanging for a response.
- Be engaging during board meetings. Which means OMG opening your mouth, talking, asking questions, making motions, and approving motions. Don’t sit silently.
- Get to know your other board members outside of the organization. I cannot stress how important this is. Have lunch or dinner with them. Go out for coffee.
- Attend the events your organization puts on for either fundraisers, general get-togethers, dinners, etc.
- Always promote your organization in the most positive light towards the public. If you cannot – then resign.
- Before you resign email or call the President and be honest with them. Honesty is a big thing. Don’t lie about why you want to resign. Allow the board an opportunity to respond back to offer another role on the board.
- Make sure the board has a director’s and officer’s liability insurance. Any nonprofit board can be sued for a lot of different things. Trust me – don’t sit a board that has the potential to be sued.
- Make sure you get copies of all the operating and foundational documents to review. If you have questions on any of those documents – then ask the questions. Make sure that the foundational documents include a Conflict of Interest Policy and Governance Policy. Take the latter two to heart when you sign them.
- Most of all be a doer – not a talker when serving on a board.
- Be a decision maker. Take a stand for what you believe. If you cannot then leave the board.
- Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Communication is so vital in a nonprofit.
- Always listen.
- Always be grateful, especially to the volunteers.
- Always say thank you to every single person for everything great and small.
- Always take notes. Never delete emails.
- If you’ve found you have made a mistake – apologize.
- Always smile, keep your sense of humor, and don’t take things personally.
- This is the most important. Make sure the nonprofit’s state tax paperwork and IRS paperwork are done by May 15th of each year.
I’m taking a few of these to illustrate on more.
The one major pet peeve that literally gets me is the lack of response to emails, texts, and phone messages. This ties into communicating. A board cannot function without solid and proper communication. In this day and age, it is really easy to tell when a message, an email, a text has been seen and when it’s being ignored that says a lot about you as a person and as a board member. What makes this day and age so much better than it was 20 years ago or more is that we can almost immediately respond back to those emails, texts, or phone messages. Lack of a timely response reveals you really could care less about the organization.
The second major pet peeve is the doing versus the talking. It’s easy to talk. It’s easy to share posts on social media. Being on a board does not mean you get to sit back one day a month and make some decisions. It means sometimes you have to get off your butt, get your hands dirty, and actually do work.
The biggest and most imperative duty of being a board member is making sure that the state tax report and the IRS 990 are filed by May 15th of every year. Not filing the state tax report jeopardizes the nonprofit’s status. Not filing the IRS 990’s in a three-year period will have the IRS automatically revoke your nonprofit status.
Sitting on a non-profit board is not something you do as a prestige position. It is work. It is caring. It is doing what you can to help the organization succeed.
It’s not often I offer advice but these are basic tenants I’ve learned after starting 10 nonprofits in Texas. I currently sit on one national board and two regional nonprofit boards. While all these items are important it is the communication, the doing, and lastly the smiling that are the most critical to the success of a nonprofit.