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October 22, 2020
Nonprofit Leaders Can Help Their Boards Perform at Top Levels
By Sherri Oken and Bob Harris

Sherri Oken-2016
Sherri Oken
Although they are hired by and report to their boards, nonprofit executives are uniquely positioned to help board members fulfill their responsibility to protect and guide the organization ”“ by ensuring they understand what is expected of them.

One way or another, the top executive should deliver this message to new board members:

Congratulations and welcome. By joining the board, you have become a fiduciary. That means you are entrusted and empowered to protect the organization’s assets and act in its best interests. To do so, you need to listen to discussions and counsel carefully, read, and ask questions. In other words, become and stay informed so you can carry out your fiduciary duty. These are also legal responsibilities, often referred to as the duties of care, loyalty, and obedience.

Or, as attorney Jeffrey Tenenbaum of Venable law firm in Washington, D.C. more concisely noted, “Board members are required to act reasonably, prudently and in the best interests of the organization, to avoid negligence and fraud, and to avoid conflicts of interest."

To convey these concepts to a board member, consider imparting the following advice. It should help directors better fulfill their responsibilities, actively participate in board work, and enjoy the experience of leadership.

Make time. Serving as a volunteer requires a commitment of time and resources; take it seriously. This means...

Make time to review board reports and other materials before the meeting. Print this material for easy reference at the meeting or save to a mobile device for reference. (See Use technology below) You don't want to be reading materials at the meeting and therefore possibly miss critical discussion and the opportunity to help shape the discussion and decisions.

Manage the details. There will be reports and knowledge essential to carrying our responsibilities. Decide how to manage the information you’ll receive from the start to avoid being overwhelmed or disorganized. One helpful approach is to...

Know your resources. Volunteering is a team effort supported by officers, consultants, and staff. Introduce yourself as a new board member and call on them as you prepare for meetings. They'll appreciate that you are making the effort to inform yourself, and you'll end up learning a lot about the organization in short order.

Arrive fresh. Avoid running late or bringing distractions from your office or family. Focusing on the organization when it needs your attention will help you do a good job and save time by avoiding unneeded follow-up calls.

Use technology. If reports are provided on-line or as e-mail attachments, learn to open, read, and save them before arriving at the board meeting. If the organization has an on-line collaboration and common document storage, ask to be trained on it so that you can access information when you want.

...but not at meetings. It may sound obvious, but you should silence or turn off all personal digital distractions. Taking a phone call or texting during a meeting conveys to your fellow board members that your personal business is more important than the business of the board.

Study the organization's governance procedures. At the start of your term, become acquainted with the bylaws and policies. Understanding the resources (and limitations) of your role as a director will better prepare you for discussions and for taking action.

Be inquisitive. When you receive the meeting notice and agenda, inquire about what you in particular can do to ensure a successful meeting. You may be asked to prepare a written or oral report, contribute collateral material, confer with other leaders prior to the meeting.

Pay attention. Listen to all opinions and options. If you are unable to be an objective participant in discussions, it is perfectly acceptable to excuse yourself.

Helping to guide a nonprofit is often one of the most rewarding experiences , because it lets you build a network of colleagues while contributing to the advancement of a cause or community. You deserve to give yourself every opportunity to enjoy it,

Sherri Oken, CAE, is the principal of ORGThe Association Advantage LLC, a full service, association management company specializing in good governance. Bob Harris, CAE, is an internationally recognized facilitator of board training and strategic planning. Email to them at and
August 2016
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