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TO SERVE, OR NOT TO SERVE? THAT’S A GOOD QUESTION!

Serving on a Board of Directors

10 tips for those contemplating serving on a board of directors

By Mary Dell Hayes

Young and experienced professionals alike receive ongoing pressure to serve on nonprofit boards of directors. Serving on a board can be great, meaningful and even life-changing work. It can also be tedious, awful and soul-crushing. Use these 10 tips to make your board service matter:

1. Serve on one board (maybe two) at a time

Volunteer at other places if you have that much time to serve. Being on a board requires the duty of fidelity. You can’t have fidelity to that many places. It doesn’t work in a marriage, and it doesn’t work for nonprofits either.

2. Give a personally meaningful gift

And take the time to explain to the executive or development director why it matters. If you don’t believe in the organization enough to personally invest at a significant level, why should anyone else? Practice what you preach.

3. Commit to telling someone in your circle about the organization and why it matters at least once per week

Report back on this activity. The rhythm of this activity ensures the organization stays forefront in your mind, and reporting back on the results of this work encourages your fellow board members.

4. Ask why all the time

Groupthink is the death of impact. Make sure at least one person is ensuring that assumptions are always questioned and evaluated.

5. Do something nice for the executive director on a regular basis.

Most executive directors are underpaid and overworked. Make sure yours has at least one good day a month by buying them lunch, sending them flowers, or encouraging them to take a nap in their car between meetings.

6. Encourage living wages and generous benefits in the nonprofit sector

You can’t solve deep, hard social problems when you’re contributing to them by creating jobs that force people to rely on public benefits and perpetuate social hardships.

7. Keep it street legal

File your 990 and Secretary of State registrations on time. Avoid conflicts of interest. Make hard choices. Be trustworthy. Be transparent.

8. It’s OK to disagree

You’re not doing it right if your fellow board members always agree on everything. Have healthy discourse to make sounder decisions. If everyone agrees, play the contrarian just to identify what might be being overlooked.

9. Keep an eye on the financials

Financial statements should be readily available to the board and reviewed at least quarterly. Make sure segregation of duties are in place and that someone is cross-checking expenses. You don’t want to be on the news explaining how your organization had funds embezzled.

10. If you can’t make the commitment, just quit already

There’s no shame in admitting that an organization isn’t right for you, or that you don’t have the time and energy to serve, or that you plain don’t feel like it. Just go ahead and resign and make space for someone else. It’s better for everyone involved. There’s no award for sucking it up and being miserable for a multi-year term of service.


Mary Dell HayesMary Dell Hayes is the principal consultant for StopGap Solutions, which works with nonprofit organizations to expand opportunities and optimize transitions. You can find more of her opinions at stopgapsolutionsmd.com.