March 26, 2022

How to Be Model Nonprofit Board Member: 5 Actions to Take

When asked what she would like to read here, Ilene Denton, the incoming chair at The Hermitage, an artist retreat center on Manasota Key, said, “I’d love to read more about the board’s role in a nonprofit.” While a lot of advice about good board members exists, a lot of it is nebulous. Here are five specific and measurable ways to be a model board member.

1. Fully Engage

“Most of them only attended board meetings,” a CEO moans about his board. “We had such a hard time getting quorum that we dropped monthly meetings and started having quarterly ones. Now even these are scarcely attended.” The most critical action to help a nonprofit you love is to engage fully. Attending meetings is just the first step of engaging.

What does it mean to engage as a board member fully? If this topic wasn’t covered at your orientation session, or you’d like a fresh look, ask the board chair and the CEO for specifics at the next board meeting. Encourage your fellow board members to publicly commit to what they will do before you meet again. Then at the next meeting, report back on your successes. Shout out everyone who engaged. Celebrate and reward success. One nonprofit offered a monthly engagement prize for board members who “went beyond the call of duty.”

2. Draw the Circle Bigger

“Thank you,” said my yoga instructor Anita, “for bringing people.” As I went to my car, mat on my shoulder, I realized that I had invited friends to the class over the years. My invitations were a sincere effort to share something of value.

Your nonprofits need a community of dedicated supporters to succeed. Since you decided to invest your time and resources in this nonprofit, be intentional about inviting others. Most nonprofits have dozens of connection opportunities. Your invitations can be to an event, work with you on a committee, give you advice on a committee challenge, or take a tour. Your favorite invitations might be:

  • Invite a new couple to dinner before all events so you can all attend together.
  • Ask different friends to review a grant or marketing materials with a fresh eye.
  • Ask staff to create an invitation for a future event to send to your mailing list or FaceBook friends with a personal note.

Set a personal standard to issue five invitations per month or sixty per year. Do it because you have something of value to share and to be a model board member.

3. Be a Model: Donate

Your nonprofit needs funds to survive and thrive, so giving donations is naturally on this list of how to be a model board member. The goal here is to be a model to others by donating and making a sacrificial gift sometime in your term. Set a stretch goal for yourself. If you know you can donate $100 a month, consider $125 or $150 instead. When you pay your bills, write this investment check first. Or, if you have an asset causing tax complications, consider donating it.

4. Have a Beginner’s Mind

As a board member, no matter your expertise, rejoice that you have more to learn, especially about income development. We all do.

“I realized that while my board members knew a lot, they knew only a little about fundraising and running a nonprofit,” explains Martha Macris, Executive Director of Memorial Assistance Ministries in Houston. “One of my roles is to lead and teach them about fundraising.”

Nonprofits are complex. They can earn seven sources of income. Besides understanding the overall process of how your nonprofit obtains income, you need to know about the current business climate and current trends in the field. If the nonprofit seeks donor contributions, you’ll want to deep dive into how fundraising works.

Suggested minimal action: read and learn from one book, magazine, newsletter, podcast, or workshop a month that will further your understanding of the sector or mission focus. To go beyond the minimum, ask the chair and CEO about incorporating 30 minutes of board learning at every meeting.

5. Make Logical Decisions

The nonprofit’s goal was to provide more housing to the community. The idea was to save existing houses from being torn down to lengthen an airport runway. They applied for a large federal grant to move them.

They didn’t get it. It was good news.

Moving a dozen houses down a major thoroughfare would have been a complicated project from the dark side.  The facts were that it was easier and cheaper to build new houses. The goal to save existing homes was emotional and not logical.

To be a model board member, help your nonprofit to make rational and strategic decisions during the board meeting. How can you do this? Here are two practical tools.

 a. Request Evidence

Help the board to find and review verifiable information. When people make statements, ask for proof before decision-making. Diplomatically ask for evidence at meetings to improve your decision-making. For example, imagine that during a meeting to discuss a possible special event, a co-member states: “Another organization made over $20,000 in two hours with this same event.”

“How do we know that?”

“It was in the paper,” the co-member replies.

You probe, “Did it mention how much they spent to make the $200,000?”

“No, but I’m sure we can do just as well.”

“Well, before we adopt their idea, it’s pretty important that we know that and how many years they’ve been doing the gala.” you begin, “and more. How can we find out how much they spent to make money – was it $100,000 or $50,000 or $1,000? Can we also find out how much time they invested?”

Requesting evidence is not only common sense. It is about helping your peers obtain enough information to make sound decisions.

b. Generate Options

Boards often get locked into thinking they must pick one of two unattractive options. More alternatives are almost always available. Find them by framing the situation in new ways.

In a meeting about ethics, board members were asked if they would take a gift of one million dollars for a children’s service agency from a convicted sexual predator. The event leaders presented the choice as “take-it-or-leave-it.”

In the discussion, the best answer was a third alternative: ask the potential donor to make the gift anonymously. This choice provided a way to say yes to the contribution, protect the nonprofit’s brand, and allow the donor to make the gift.

Help the nonprofit you serve generate more options when everyone believes they must decide between two unattractive choices.

Thank you for Serving 

Remember, you are special. You are a precious resource to the nonprofit you serve. According to David Renz in a Reframing Governance webinar, 70 percent of nonprofits express difficulty attracting quality board members. Thank you for serving.

As a board member, make your time worthwhile. Help the nonprofit you serve.  This article shares five concrete ways to act on your commitment. Which one will you begin today?

For more answers, check Karen’s Nonprofit CEO Library.

For solutions delivered to your inbox, sign up for Karen’s CEO Solutions.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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