Serving on a board is a tremendous amount of work. Whether you’re helping to start a new nonprofit or serving a well-established organization, you’re expected to make decisions that can alter the organization’s trajectory. Not to mention, you have to balance board work on top of your other work and personal responsibilities. Like many board members out there, you naturally want to do the best job possible for your organization. But how can you get the most out of your term?
It’s actually quite easy to become a good (or even exceptional!) board member. Whether leading comes naturally to you or you need to focus on your development, you were chosen to serve your organization for a reason. You bring valuable skills and knowledge to the boardroom. It’s up to you to continuously grow both in and out of the boardroom.
Of course, it isn’t always apparent what steps you need to take to become a better board member. To help point you in the right direction, here are several easy ways you can make sure you’re doing absolutely everything you can to be an asset to your organization:
- Jump into the onboarding experience
- Get to know your fellow board members
- Stay on top of your assignments
- Revisit the basic board duties every so often
- Participate in fundraising
- Never stop learning
It’s time to become the leader your organization needs. Many board members who want to go above and beyond have found success in these methods, which means you can, too. Let’s dive in!
1. Jump into the onboarding experience
For board leaders, it’s only natural to think about what sorts of onboarding activities new board members should complete. But let’s take a look at the other side of things: how board members can prepare themselves during the onboarding process.
Being a standout board member starts before you even step foot in the boardroom. The onboarding experience is a pivotal time in your board service—it’s when you learn about your role, meet your fellow board members for the first time, and set expectations for your entire term. Here are a few ways you can be proactive about catching up on expectations:
- Read through your board book. Most board leaders share a manual with a history one-pager, contact information, key financial information, and more. If it’s shared with you ahead of time, read through it before your first meeting. These manuals can be hefty but extremely helpful in understanding your organization’s current situation. If you have online access, go through a few pages whenever you have a free moment.
- Show up to orientation ready to learn. A lot of information will get thrown at you during orientation. Take notes, and if you have any questions, don’t be afraid to speak up. Even if some activities put you outside of your comfort zone (like initial icebreakers), be fully present and ready to learn about your new organization, role, and teammates.
- Visit the organization. Reach out to the executive director or a veteran board member to see if you can get a tour of the organization’s facilities. Chances are, they’ll say yes. Then, you’ll know where to go when you show up for your first meeting. You might even meet some key staff members and get a chance to ask questions about the mission and the organization’s daily operations.
Board leaders are on the lookout for new members who are enthusiastic from the start. They’ll come to trust you and be confident that they can turn to you for important assignments. First impressions matter, and being fully present and engaged in onboarding will go a long way in setting the precedent for your term. Plus, you might even inspire others to dive headfirst into their initial training, too. There’s no better way to lead than by example!
2. Get to know your fellow board members
Camaraderie is a real game-changer in the boardroom. Whether or not you can collaborate and work as a team with your fellow board members will impact your productivity and the entire board’s effectiveness.
Spend time outside of the boardroom getting to know your teammates. That might mean attending social events where everyone can talk and bond. This could mean hosting a bowling night, grabbing drinks at a local bar, or even just going out to dinner after a board meeting.
Suggest a board buddy system to encourage socializing early on. With this strategy, each new member is paired with a veteran member who can show new members the ropes and give them a friendly face in the boardroom.
This idea can work throughout the entire year, not just during onboarding. Try a rotating system, where every few weeks, someone is paired up with someone new, whether they’re new or not. “Buddies” can call each other once or twice a week just to catch up and chat about what’s going on in their lives.
If you’re the board chair, add some time to the beginning of each meeting’s agenda for board members just to talk. No need to go crazy—5 or 10 minutes will do. This can go a long way in getting people to participate during the actual meeting, too!
Remember, your board members are real people who live dynamic lives. By making connections outside the boardroom, everyone will have the opportunity to know and care about what’s going on in their teammates’ worlds.
3. Stay on top of your assignments
Chances are, you have a lot of responsibilities to balance both in and outside of the boardroom. It can be tempting to put things off until the last minute, but procrastination can be a real problem by just creating more stress as looming deadlines approach.
Instead, here’s a simple solution: finish your assignments as soon as possible!
It doesn’t matter if it’s something as big as finalizing your board’s fundraising involvement strategies to present for approval or simply voting on a t-shirt design for an upcoming event. Everyone needs to do their part to keep things moving. Your fellow board members will thank you when you’re not a bottleneck for completing big projects.
If your board uses a board management solution, see if it has a task manager. If it does, encourage your board administrator to use it. During meetings, the administrator can note any next steps and the timeline by which they need to be completed, then assign them to appropriate team members. You’ll be able to see deadlines and the exact details for anything you need to complete. That way, everyone will remember what they’re supposed to do even after leaving the boardroom.
4. Revisit the basic board duties every so often
No matter what organization they serve, board members have legal responsibilities to fulfill. The moment they sign their board member agreement forms, they’re committing to advance the organization to the best of their abilities.
Boardable’s guide to board member responsibilities takes a deep dive into the many expectations that board members must meet (and hopefully exceed). It breaks the core legal duties down into three categories. These core duties should be at the root of every decision made in the boardroom:
1) Duty of Care
This duty is two-fold: 1) board members should be informed and 2) they should complete their duties with the care that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise in a similar position and under similar circumstances.
Essentially, board members should fully commit to supporting the organization to the best of their abilities. They should exercise care when making decisions and act as a true steward of the organization. This means:
- Regularly attending board meetings (and preparing and actively participating!)
- Staying informed about the organization and supporting its initiatives
- Exercising independent judgment and not being influenced by others’ votes
- Following through on assignments (more on this later!)
- Proactively communicating with the executive director and fellow board members
This duty will come naturally to those who truly believe in the organization and its mission. Being vigilant about fulfilling this duty and revisiting its stipulations will go a long way toward making your term successful.
2) Duty of Loyalty
This second duty is that board members should be loyal ambassadors for the organization and its mission. As a board member, you must never use the information you learn for personal gain.
Every decision a board member makes and every action they take should be done in the best interest of the organization, not in their personal best interest. Whenever you’re acting on behalf of the organization, you need to put aside your personal and professional interests. Instead, you must consider what’s best for the organization.
That’s why many organizations have new board members sign a conflict of interest policy agreement at the start of their term. They need to be upfront. That way, the board and organization can exercise caution when any disclosed conflicts might interfere with the board’s decisions.
3) Duty of Obedience
This final obligation requires board members to adhere to any rules that apply to board service. While you should do whatever you can to reach the organization’s goals, you still need to comply with:
- The organization’s bylaws
- Local, state, and federal laws
A board that strays from the rules set forth can negatively alter the organization’s trajectory. As Labyrinth’s guide to fundraising legal requirements explains, “Compliance starts with understanding the range of requirements that your nonprofit is held to. Starting with [the] essentials will set your organization up for continued success without the worry of legal penalties and fines slowing down your mission.”
Boards at any organization, particularly one that fundraises, have to exercise extra care in the actions they take. Everything they do and every dollar they spend should be for the betterment of the organization’s mission. Otherwise, you can lose stakeholders’ trust and risk your organization’s legal standing and ability to operate altogether.
Every so often, refresh yourself on your organization’s bylaws and see if any new legal regulations have popped up that may affect your board work. That way, you’ll always know what you can and can’t do.
5. Participate in fundraising
Some board members are resistant to participate in fundraising because they don’t have any prior fundraising experience. However, as a board member, you signed up to provide your organization with the knowledge, skills, and resources it needs to pursue its mission. That means participating in fundraising.
Here are some easy and non time-intensive ways you can get involved in fundraising:
- Fundraising events. In addition to helping plan events, be sure to show up. Events provide a great opportunity to mingle with donors and chat about your mission.
- Sponsorships. Do you have any connections to local businesses that would be interested in sponsoring your organization? See if you can take the lead on lining up a sponsorship for an upcoming event or even a long-term partnership for the organization. A business owner is much more likely to say yes to someone they know and trust.
- Volunteer grants. Businesses often offer grants to organizations where their employees regularly volunteer. Reach out to volunteers to check their eligibility, and try checking your own. A lot of companies offer volunteer grants for board service!
- Matching gifts. Great board members often give more than just their time and skills. They also contribute financially—even though it’s not always necessary! Similar to volunteer grants, see if your employer will match your donations to your organization.
- Donor appreciation. Reach out to your development officer to see if you can send out some thank-you letters to donors or help show appreciation in some other way. A little gratitude can help strengthen mid-level and major donor relationships substantially.
Partaking in fundraising doesn’t always mean soliciting donations. There’s a lot more that goes into it, and as you can see, there are plenty of ways you can get involved. Figure out which opportunities match your interests and skills and get to work!
6. Never stop learning
Even after you’ve gone through initial training, you’ll still want to keep learning how to be more effective in your role. Continued education is a powerful force in the boardroom. It’s a great way to develop your skills and really make a difference for your organization.
The greatest leaders pursue ongoing growth and realize that there’s always more to learn.
There are a ton of great professional development resources out there. Some are specific to board service whereas others focus more generally on things like fundraising, leadership, and similar skills. No one knows your strengths (and conversely your weaknesses) quite like you do. Browse through online resources, training courses, and books to learn how to become a better board member.
If you find an especially valuable learning opportunity, talk to your executive director or your board officers to gauge their thoughts on making it a team-wide activity. The organization might even be willing to pay for the training. After all, why wouldn’t they want highly-skilled captains at the helm of their ship?
If you want to be an asset to your board, you’re off to a great start just by reading this guide! These six simple steps will go a long way in the boardroom. Your board’s leaders will easily recognize that you’re going above and beyond to help your organization reach its goals.
Also, don’t forget to share your newfound knowledge with your fellow board members. In no time, you’ll have an exceptional team that can make real progress for your organization.
About the Author
Jeb Banner is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a board management software provider for mission-driven boards. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way of Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Boardable is an online board management portal that centralizes communication, document storage, meeting planning, and everything else that goes into running a board of directors.