Building Blocks for Effective Board Membership

The pandemic and ensuing economic downturn have put many nonprofits on shaky ground. In crises such as these, solid board leadership is more essential than ever — critical decisions affecting an organization’s long-term survival must be made. As your board members attempt to stabilize the organization and build for a successful future, they should bear in mind their main duties and responsibilities.

Members are considered fiduciaries, or trustees, of their organizations. Their legal duties aren’t only important for the success of their nonprofits. Compliance also can preempt personal liability for board members’ actions, assuming the members are acting in good faith. Here are their three primary duties.

1. Duty of care

Board members must devote reasonable care and attention to provide the requisite oversight of your nonprofit. Among other things, they must ensure the prudent use of all assets including funds, facilities, staff and goodwill. This means that they need to be familiar with your organization’s financial status. It’s not enough to know whether your group has a budget surplus or deficit — members should know how to read and interpret budgets, financial statements and other critical documents.

The duty of care also requires members to attend meetings (at least virtually) and read reports. And they must exercise sound judgment when making decisions, accounting for all relevant information rather than simply accepting staff recommendations.

2. Duty of loyalty

Members are obligated to act in the best interests of your nonprofit and its stakeholders. They should see that all of their activities and financial transactions are designed solely to advance your organization’s mission, not their own interests.

The duty of loyalty requires your board to identify and disclose all conflicts of interest. Board members also should abstain from discussions or votes on matters that could benefit them or people close to them. For example, a member should disclose that he holds an ownership interest in a vendor business under consideration for a contract. Such a contract could constitute inappropriate self-dealing and provide an “excess benefit.” That could happen if your nonprofit paid more for the service than another customer would — or more than you’d pay a different vendor for the same service.

3. Duty of obedience

This duty relates to legal compliance. Board members must confirm that your organization follows all applicable federal and state laws, rules and regulations, as well as its own bylaws and other governing documents.

Board members also should confirm that your nonprofit files all required federal and state information and tax returns. They should ensure that your organization abides by the purpose of activities (or mission), identified in its applications for tax-exempt status, too, to avoid revocation of status.

Beyond the fiduciary

Of course, board members also have more granular responsibilities. New members, for example, might not realize that they’re expected to evaluate and set your organization’s executive director’s salary. Or they might not know how actively they’re expected to participate in fundraising, which is particularly important during the COVID-19 era.  

In contrast to members who might underestimate their responsibilities, some board members could believe their duties are far broader than they are or should be. Although they should contribute to fundraising, strategic planning and oversight, the board largely must stay out of your organization’s day-to-day operations. Board members frequently may work with paid staff, but it’s up to your executive director to manage these employees.

Help the board help the organization

Nonprofit board members often are recruited based on their passion for the cause. Unfortunately, passion alone doesn’t guarantee effective board performance. You can help your members succeed by properly educating them on their roles and responsibilities.

New members, for example, should undergo a comprehensive (but not overwhelming) orientation. In addition to reminding them of the basic duties and responsibilities — this should have been discussed during recruitment — you can bring them up to speed on specific issues facing the organization.

It also can be helpful to provide written “job descriptions” for board members. Some organizations even ask their members to sign a written agreement that lays out their responsibilities in express terms. In either scenario, it’s important that members receive some feedback on their performance. Simply knowing they’re being evaluated can increase their accountability and commitment.

Another suggestion: You might consider assigning new board members a veteran member to act as a mentor. These veterans can answer rookies’ questions about how best to fulfill their roles and help them apply their specific skills, experience and networks to further the organization’s mission.

The bottom line

Service on a nonprofit board can strike some as a cushy gig that looks good on a resume. The reality, as the turbulent COVID-19 environment has demonstrated, can prove much more demanding. When resources are threatened at the same time demand for services skyrockets, board members need to double down on the job and, perhaps, act creatively. However, their overriding duties always should guide their actions.

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