Help! I was just elected to serve on a board. Has that ever happened to you? If so, then I have some more guidance for you this week.
Last week I took a look at the role of a board. I chose to look at it from the perspective of the purpose that it is supposed to fulfill. The article really dealt with the types of boards and the functions of boards serving non-profit organizations. This week, I want to look at what you and I must do if we are called upon to serve on a board.
There are three board functions that we covered. In summary, they are to advise, to consent, and to lead.
Advise — To advise means to offer suggestions about the best way to operate or the best course of action to take. The one being advised is under no obligation to accept the advice and the one providing it cannot mandate that it be accepted and implemented.
Consent — To consent means to give permission for something to happen. In theory, nothing happens without that consent. And that is where some problems begin in the non-profit world. Many a strong or controlling leader has made a consenting board into a “rubber stamp” board by packing it with friendly and like-minded individuals.
Lead — To lead means to operate and execute the day to day operations of the organization. And the board leads the organization itself through the insightful creation of strategies, plans, policies, and practices that increase the scope and span of the non-profit organization.
Focus on the Non-Profit Board Member
You have been elected to serve. Now what? You know the three basic functions that a board provides for an organization. But, what happens at the individual level? The answer is simple. And it is the same as at the board level. You are there to give your advice, to give your consent, and to lead the organization. That leadership may be a solo activity at times. But it is a function that you must be able to provide.
Advising — You are there to provide input. That input is just another word for advice. You are there to list to be sure. But you are there to speak. A completely silent board member is a wasted chair at the table. That sounds harsh and I realize that. But, if you just sit and observe what goes on and never contribute, then you are taking the place of someone who would be willing to do offer solutions to the challenges that most organizations face. I hope that the board that you serve on has a commissioning ceremony or some other occasion to mark the start of your tenure. But if not, don’t wait to be charged. Begin as soon as you can to contribute to the collective wisdom that rests within the board.
Consenting — You are not a “rubber stamp” for the chairman of the board. You are not there to simply provide political cover for the leader to be able to say that “the board approved” of whatever was requested. You are not there to acquiesce to the wishes or demands of the chairman or the staff that they represent. You are there to challenge and to question until you are satisfied that the answers that you have been provided are convincing or compelling enough for you to provide your consent for what has been requested.
Leading — This is fundamental to your role as a board member. If you serve as a result of being elected, then you have a constituency that believes that you will represent their interests. Lead with compassion. If you are appointed, then someone has faith in you and is willing to risk their reputation by appointing you to a position. Lead with confidence. If you have volunteered for the role, then there may be no one else who is willing to step up and lead. In this case, lead with caution. There may be issues that are unforeseen to you. So, proceed with caution.
What should you do?
There are many avenues that may lead you to board service. Sometimes we seek the positions. And sometimes they seek us. In any case, you have found yourself in a position on a board. What should you do?
Observe — I have made a somewhat impassioned plea to contribute from the start. And I stand by that plea. But, take some time to observe. Observe the other board members. Observe the strong, the weak, the loud, the quiet, the swift, and the slow. And observe the way in which the board conducts itself. Only after you observe from inside can you begin to contribute or make a change.
Ask — There is power in asking questions. Do not be afraid to ask why we do it that way. Ask what have we tried in the past and what worked and didn’t work. Ask who usually does a certain task and why they were chosen. Ask for strategic plans, tactical plans, goals, mission statements and the vision that has been cast. You may be the only one asking questions, but every new board member is wondering the same thing.
Absorb — There is a lot to absorb for a new or first-time board member. Give yourself some time to soak it all in. Read past minutes of board meetings. Read and come to understand the financial statements that the organization uses to manage the funds and operating costs. Familiarize yourself with both the income and expense sides of the financial statements.
Evaluate — Once you have observed, asked, and absorbed, you will need some time to evaluate the operations, the staff, and the programs of the organization. This is where many boards break down. They will “ask the tough questions”, but they will not evaluate the answers or the programs that the organization is trying to operate. And no one seems to want to tackle evaluating staff performance and whether or not they are effective in meeting the objectives set out for them. And if there is nothing documented to evaluate, then you certainly know some of the first areas that you will need to get to work, don’t you?
Act — The last sentence above hints at the need for action. Leadership is indeed “influence” as folks like John Maxwell are fond of saying. But leadership is more than an ethereal force. It is set of concretely defined actions that propel an organization forward and on toward the goal and the purpose for which it was created. It is a volitional act. It is intentional. And it is scary at times.
Are you ready to serve?
You may be a reluctant board member. You may not have known what you were getting into when you agreed to be on a ballot or be appointed to serve on a board. But you can do it. You can. You just need to be willing to step up and step out and watch what happens. People will follow you. They will. So, take a little time to observe, to ask, to absorb, and to evaluate. And then lead. Serve. You may find that in the case of most non-profit boards, leading and serving are synonymous.
And that is the setup for next week’s article where I will discuss Servant Leadership. You won’t want to miss that one.