Leaders Can Get the Most from Volunteering for a Nonprofit Board
By Hardy Smith
Business leaders are favorite targets for nonprofit
organizations seeking board members. However, after serving for a
short period of time, they often become frustrated with their
nonprofit board experience. This frustration can be avoided if
nonprofits would heed some solid advice from the for-profit world.
Recently executives with extensive experience working with
nonprofits participated in a nationwide survey to identify a
business perspective for creating effective nonprofit boards.
Ironically, the survey project was initiated as a result of
participants in a training session for nonprofit leaders being asked
to identify their most pressing problem. They answered loudly and
nearly in unison, “Why don’t board members do what they’re supposed
However the room quickly fell silent when the audience was
countered with this question: “Have you asked or told board members
what you would like from them?” It was a wake up call.
Organizations with board performance issues were confronted with the
fact that they might be contributing more to their problem than they
This response confirmed the need to solicit opinions on
causes of frustration being felt by business leaders in their
relationships with nonprofit boards. Survey participants reflected
a wide variety of occupations and interests. Included were top
corporate executives, business owners, political leaders, university
presidents, doctors, attorneys, engineers, and management level
In addition to getting responses to the priority question –
Why don’t board members do what they’re supposed to do?
– the survey included four other key questions for collecting advice
from business and community leaders:
When asked to
serve on a nonprofit board, what motivates you to say yes?
time, what would be some reasons you would turn down a board
As a board
member, what is your biggest criticism related to organizations
and relations with their boards?
organizations be more effective in utilizing their board
The results reveal candid opinions on relationships with
nonprofits. Service minded business leaders shared taking their
personal involvement with nonprofit organizations very seriously.
Their responses revealed common problems they feel strongly about,
along with possible solutions.
Executives surveyed emphatically recommended that
organizations should first closely examine their policies,
procedures, and practices before any criticism is directed to board
members. Of course many organizations enjoy highly effective, very
engaged boards. But for those who don’t, and for those who want to
make sure their board member relationships remain strong, paying
attention to what these board members have to say – as well as
listening to their own board members – is imperative.
Six recurring themes were identified as the foundation for
most issues and solutions: connectivity, no surprises, importance of
time, improved communication, accountability, and organizational
A large majority of business executives responding said they
want to feel a personal connection to an organization’s cause or
issue before getting involved. Very few said they got involved just
because the cause was a good one. It is vital that organizations
invite the right people by taking time to understand their interests
and abilities. In other words, organizations should pre-qualify
board candidates for compatibility.
Furthermore, organizations should be sure to communicate
effectively with board prospects about the expectations of their
role. Those expectations should be clearly laid out and agreed to
by board prospects. No surprises later. If they are going to be
asked to raise or give money, they need to know that up front.
This is a major issue!
Organizations must recognize the importance of time to their
board members. Despite being asked to list reasons other than time
for turning down a board position, many of the survey participants
still gave that as a reason for saying no. Clearly time is
something those surveyed feel strongly about! All activities must
be run as efficiently as possible with no time wasted. They must
accept the fact that an otherwise good board prospect just might be
too busy to participate, and a “no” could actually be the best
response to an invitation for filling a board position.
Many of the issues mentioned could be resolved through
improved organization-board communication. It is hard to have a
positive relationship if someone feels good communication is
missing. And remember, listening is a critical part of effective
communication. Board members will question their involvement, and
commitment, when they feel they are not being listened to.
Survey participants firmly believe that accountability of
board members should be a priority. They are clearly frustrated by
non-performers. Organizations failing to deal with this issue are
missing needed performance and at the same time risk losing board
members who are productive.
Other major reasons cited for declining a board invitation or
for leaving a board position include nonprofits being run without an
organized focus, reputation issues, financial questions, or staff
who does not project a professional image.
Organizations experiencing difficulty in trying to recruit or
engage board members need to undertake an honest evaluation of
themselves and their board relationships. Addressing the concerns
raised by this survey will help them create an atmosphere conducive
to attracting and retaining committed board members.
If they want more effective boards and more engaged board
members, nonprofits should accept the results-oriented focus of
successful business leaders participating in this survey.
community leaders who desire a more positive, productive experience
from their volunteer board service can communicate the insights
gained from this survey to help avoid and eliminate frustration with
the nonprofits they wish to serve.
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