A close friend of mine from Kansas City became a successful business owner early in his career. Seeing the value of his knowledge and experience gained in a short period of time, I asked him one day if he’d ever given thought to serving on a non-profit board of directors. He replied he was not on any boards and thought he was too busy with managing the growth of his own business to consider the opportunity. “Why would I say ‘yes’ to being a board member if I am asked?” he said. Good question, I thought.
Though it sounds rather ‘Pollyannaish,’ one of the great opportunities of life is the opportunity to serve our communities and the world around us with our time, our talent and our treasure. That’s what life is all about. In fact, I would go
so far as to say that serving others is the great purpose of life. But serving is not just an opportunity, it’s also a privilege.
We can serve in many, many ways. Most of us serve through our established networks, whether religious organizations, social and community clubs, alumni groups, business and professional organizations, etc. Some, however, will have the opportunity and privilege of serving as a board member of a non-profit organization.
Non-profits are corporations similar to for-profit corporations. But non-profits don’t have typical shareholders or owners. In ex-change for favorable tax treatments, non-profits are “owned” by the public. In a sense, the only shareholders are those who represent the public as members of the board of directors. Serving as a board member provides an outstanding opportunity for significant and meaningful service. And who better to serve than successful business leaders and owners who have real-world experience in finance, law, accounting, personnel management, marketing and public relations, and on and on?
So, why would I encourage a busy person to accept a position on a non-profit board? I believe the most important reasons have to do with motives.
Don’t join a board because you see it as a great networking tool, even though it is. Don’t join a board because you have a service to market or a product to sell. Don’t join a board because it will enhance your resume, though it might.
Join a board because you believe in its mission, and you’re passionate about leading the organization to greater effectiveness and efficiency. Join a board because you have some combination of time, talent and treasure you can bring to the table in synergy with other board members.
When weighing an invitation to join a non-profit board, it is important to understand the specific expectations of the position. Board members are keepers of the flame—they adopt the vision of the organization, and ensure that its mission is being fulfilled.
The board also has a legal and fiduciary role and is responsible for the overall finances of the organization. Board members work with the staff to formulate and manage budgets, monitor income and expenses, and ensure that the organization is in compliance with governance regulations. There will be times when the board is asked to hire and/or evaluate the organization’s CEO and other executive leaders.
Just as there are specific expectations of the responsibilities of a board member, there are also specific situations board members should guard against becoming involved. Board members should not interfere with internal personnel issues, or involve themselves in the day-to-day operations of the organization. There are no major shareholders in a non-profit who are entitled to inject themselves into the operations of the organization. Board members, no matter how significant their contributions, are volunteers who have accepted the mandate to keep the organization on mission, to be an advocate, donor, friend-raiser, and fund-raiser for the non-profit.
Join a board for the right motives, and your service as a board member will be richly rewarded in tangible and intangible ways.
My friend, who asked me why he should consider joining a non-profit board, ended up joining the Board of Directors of Heart to Heart Inter-national, and served for several years with distinction. Later, he founded his own non-profit, which provides media services for worthy individuals and organizations.
Serving on the board of a non-profit is an opportunity and a privilege, and it just might change your life and the lives of those you serve!