Serving on a non-profit board can be one of the most rewarding activities a person can undertake. However, there are pitfalls. Following are five common mistakes people sometimes make when joining a non-profit board. These mistakes can be costly to the board member and to the organization.
- Failure to understand how a healthy board functions.
Some first-time board members romanticize what it means to serve on a board thinking it’s all about approving requests from the organization for ideas or attending fund-raising events. Board members of non-profits have a number of responsibilities. They are responsible for financial oversight, making sure the organization complies with regulations, holding the executive director accountable for his performance, strategic planning, and having meetings that run effectively and efficiently.
The work can be tedious, and if board members drop the ball, the entire organization can go off the rails. Board members require education about their responsibilities and have the skills necessary to function properly.
- Joining for status and not carrying one’s weight.
Board members are expected to contribute time, skills, connections, and possibly money (either their own or raise funds) to the non-profit. Some people join boards to pad their resume or promote their business. While this might be an outcome of serving on a board, responsible board members should join only if they are willing to contribute and have an impact for the cause they represent. Before joining, they should be clear about the expectations and be willing to live up to them to the best of their ability.
- Overstepping bounds.
Board members are stewards of the organization, not managers of operations. They should avoid breaking the chain of command and talking to employees without express permission from the executive director. Similarly, board members should never speak to the media on behalf of the board unless given permission by the board to do so.
- Jumping right in with answers before taking time to listen and learn.
Many board members have served on other boards and have a track record of achievement in business or non-profit involvement. It is natural for them to come with experience and answers. However, each non-profit organizations has their unique history and culture. Board members who fail to listen and learn the culture, jump in with answers to questions no one is asking. Listening and learning lowers the risk of alienating yourself from other board members who have been there much longer.
- Poor collaboration and teamwork skills.
Boards are made up of volunteers from different walks of life. They have strong opinions, are of various political stripes, and can be sensitive to contrary views. It takes collaboration and attentive communication to come up with the best ideas. Ramming ideas through by strong personalities, is not the way to get things done. If board members or executives forget about the need to work together, unnecessary offense and conflict occurs. It’s important to balance results with relationships when working with fellow board members and keep the long view in mind when working together.