The assumption is that new members will pick up cues that will frame the mission, finances, and risk management documents they receive during those first months on the job. As a result, confusion around roles can be ubiquitous and passed down from one generation of members to the next.
One of the most debated topics around board service is figuring out who does what. And no wonder. Discussions of roles do not tend to be part of board orientation. Or the annual board retreat. Or group training sessions.
It would seem that the roles should be fairly straightforward, with the board conducting oversight and staff responsible for day-to-day operations. Unfortunately, as anyone who has served on a nonprofit board knows, it’s not that simple!
The board has three important roles: governance, oversight, and support.
Governance is the overarching responsibility of the board. Think about it this way: An airport has a control tower. Sitting in this tower, high above many runways, is a group of air traffic controllers. Their job is to ensure that planes take-off and land safely. But the actual flying of the planes and the on-board customer service is left to the pilots and flight crews. Together, all of those parties strive to provide a safe and enjoyable experience for passengers.
Boards are in the tower making sure that the organization’s programs and services operate effectively, and yes, even safely. However, it’s the chief executive and staff who act like the pilot and flight crew, managing the delivery of programs and services.
Oversight puts governance into action. It helps a board break down its governance responsibilities into manageable chunks. Here are a few examples of oversight:
The board as a whole assumes fiduciary responsibility for the organization. Use those CPAs and banker-types as resources for your questions but expect oversight activities to include budget creation and monitoring. Board members also must help secure needed resources including cash, space, and in-kind goods.
Your organization must comply with local, state, and federal laws. Depending on where your nonprofit is located, requirements will vary. The board also must be mindful of its bylaws, which constitute a legal document.
It’s the board’s job to plan for rainy days, literally. From floods to executive departures to a volunteer who falls down the stairs — these are a few examples of the contingencies boards must plan for. The group also must stay on top of risks to the organization’s reputation, which is the foundation for donor and community confidence.
An overarching responsibility of the board is to assess impact: Is the nonprofit having its desired effect? Is it staying mission-focused? The board and staff can identify and agree upon a set of key indicators, outcomes, and measures to be used by the group to track success.
A board choreographs a delicate dance with its chief executive. On one hand, it hires, fires and evaluates its staff leader. On the other, it must foster a partnership with the CEO that helps the organization thrive.
The support role is typically not one you will find in a board member job description. It is one of those unwritten nuances that varies from one organization to another. For example, if your organization has a small staff, a board member might offer his or her expertise in bookkeeping or human resources.
One other very important form of support involves acknowledging and thanking your chief executive and staff for their hard work. Board members can host a thank-you lunch for staff, give the CEO a spa gift certificate after a big event, or approve a deserved holiday bonus. Hand-written notes also do the trick. Of course, competitive salaries and benefits are always a terrific way to show the board’s gratitude.
If your board has not discussed its roles during your tenure, consider suggesting the topic as an agenda item for an upcoming board meeting. You can find relevant articles, books, or videos to help educate the group. Without a doubt, you will help focus the group’s work and provide a service to all those who regularly wonder, “Is this part of our job?”
Susan Schaefer is principal of Resource Partners LLC, and Bob Wittig is executive director of the Jovid Foundation. Together, they co-authored Nonprofit Board Service for the GENIUS.