Joining a non-profit board

Guest writer:  Alexandra Peters

What do the best trustees do? How do they make sure their service on nonprofit boards really makes a difference? How can they put the “trust” in trustworthy?

New board members often arrive at their first board meeting unsure about what is expected of them. Even after years of experience it can be hard to know what you should be doing. It’s not easy to find this information because most of what is written about boards is not written by board members.

I wrote down my top ten tips for how to be a trustworthy trustee:

  1. Commit. To the work of the organization. Do you really believe in this cause, this mission? Do you feel strongly about the work they do? Could you go so far as to say you are passionate about it? If not, don’t sign on.
  2. Show up. You’re legally responsible for whatever decisions are made. Even if you weren’t at the meeting and don’t know what they voted on, you’re still responsible.
  3. Ask questions. You have the same job as a board member that an owner would if this were a private company.  An owner would want to know what was going on. Don’t be too polite. Or too aggressive, for that matter. Just keep asking.
  4. Read board materials. Sounds obvious, and it may involve time, but look at board stuff when you get it. And not just on the way to the meeting. Make time to read whatever is sent to you as soon as possible. You can’t be a serious decision maker if you don’t know what’s happening.
  5. Know what the world knows. Of course you know all about your organization’s website, their annual report, their IRS form 990, right? Because these things are available to everyone, anywhere. And you can get hold of them easily, just like everyone else can.
  6. Stay independent. Support the chief executive, admire the staff, but keep yourself disinterested. That’sDISinterested, not UNinterested. As members of the board, you are volunteers, and that’s why you can legally and morally give oversight, because you receive nothing in payment for your work. If you’re getting some sort of benefit, financial or otherwise, you’re not independent. That’s how it works.
  7. Understand the program. Could you describe to a potential funder or donor what the organization does? Have you visited the program, met the constituency it serves, talked to staff, attended public programs? Find ways to get to know the program so you can explain it with ease – and you’ll need to do more than just reading to do this. Have fluency in speaking about the work of the organization, even from a non-professional level.
  8. Tell the world. Advocate. Evangelize. Write blogs and op-ed pieces about the organization. Multiply the value of your interest by spreading your enthusiasm everywhere. Make sure everyone you meet knows how strongly you feel about this organization and this cause.
  9. Get involved. Join at least one board committee, if not several; volunteer for specific aspects of the program (remembering that as a volunteer you are supervised by staff, not the other way around); become a tour guide for the program; raise your hand when leadership is needed; represent your board at civic and community activities; go with your Executive Director to meet donors; call funders on behalf of the organization; make thank you calls; write thank you letters. You get the idea.
  10. Be generous. With your time, your money, your energy, and your skills.

Alexandra Peters is a writer, educator, psychologist, and board consultant. She has been engaged with nonprofit organizations for 30 years, and currently works with boards on issues of governance and board leadership. Alexandra holds an MA in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University, and has served on 13 boards, 5 of which she Chaired. She brings to her work the perspective of a highly trained board member: a first-hand understanding of the psychology, dynamics and structure of boards and nonprofit leadership.