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Welcome to the club: A quick guide for new nonprofit board members

Aug 17, 2020

Congratulations! Your passion and professional skills have been recognized, landing you an esteemed spot on a nonprofit board of directors. 

So, what exactly did you sign up for?

In nearly every state, nonprofit organizations are required to have a functioning board of directors to operate. The board is a governing body, assigned with essential tasks like hiring the executive director and approving the organization’s budget and strategic plan. Most board members also serve as advocates for the nonprofit and have a role in fundraising.

Being a nonprofit board member is an important role, with mostly on-the-ground training. To be an effective board member from the very beginning:

  • Ask for an orientation. If your nonprofit doesn’t offer a formal board orientation, create one. At a minimum, ask for key documents like the board’s roles and responsibilities, calendar, committee list and roster. Ask for a copy of the approved budget and approved minutes from the past three meetings, so you can get up-to-date on current organizational issues. If possible, meet with the board and committee chairs before the first meeting to get to know the team.
  • Set clear expectations. If a board member “job description” wasn’t shared with you, find out what’s expected during your term of service. Some boards require a financial contribution each year or have strict rules about attendance. Likewise, make sure the board chair understands why you accepted the role. Maybe you’re following a passion, or maybe you’re seeking professional experiences that you can’t get in your current job. Be clear about what you hope to gain from the experience; it may affect which committees or tasks you’re assigned.
  • Find a mentor. Ask an experienced board member to be your “go to” for questions and coaching, at least during your first year. Besides being a friendly face in the room, an experienced mentor can add context or historical background to the agenda – or simply decipher acronyms.
  • Treat it like a job. Study the organization, the industry and the communities you serve. If you’re not sure how to read a financial statement or other key documents, ask for help. Attend meetings consistently, participate and meet deadlines, just as you would at work. If your organization doesn’t have a formal evaluation for board members, plan to ask for feedback at regular intervals.
  • Do your homework. Read the board packet and related materials before each meeting so you have time to process the information, research solutions and offer sound advice. If you’re skimming the packet during the meeting, you won’t be serving the organization to the best of your abilities.
  • Speak up. Due to term limits, most boards are continually rolling members on and off their rosters. They’re also trying to balance institutional knowledge with fresh perspectives and new energy. You were invited for a reason. Your input is valuable, so speak up starting day one. Ask hard questions and welcome friendly debate; your job is to reach the best decision for your nonprofit and its constituents, not necessarily the easy one.
  • Stay focused. Try to stay distraction-free during board and committee meetings. When you’re checking email or glancing at devices, you’re not giving your full energy to the critical issues at hand – and you’re sending a message that board service isn’t a priority.
  • Get outside. Board meetings are important for reporting and voting, but members add most of their value outside the boardroom. Research, critical conversations, site visits and fundraising all happen separately from board meetings. Prepare to roll up your sleeves to help the board and the management teams achieve their goals.
  • Stay in your lane. This can be tricky, but it’s important for board members to recognize where their authority stops and management steps in. Once the board approves the strategic direction and sets financial guardrails, the management team should be trusted to carry out day-to-day activities and programming. It’s okay to help – to provide resources or clear barriers – but board members cannot and should not dictate daily operations or decision making.
  • Replace yourself. Eventually, your term will end and the organization will need new candidates to guide and govern the nonprofit. From the very beginning, keep a constant eye out for potential new board members. Invite them to fundraising events and other activities to build knowledge and excitement about the organization. And when it’s their turn to serve, welcome new board members with a helpful and inspiring orientation.

Interested in learning more?

Learn how to build a diverse and engaged volunteer board of directors by driving collective accountability from the president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County, Michael Johnson. At the National Training Conference he will also cover ways to analyze and engage your board of directors through report cards, gap analysis and increased engagement.Learn more about the conference.


Deron J. Kling
Senior Manager
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