Today we’re sharing insight from guest blogger Scott Downes, founder and principal of Thomas LLC, an independent consulting venture. We hope you enjoy Scott’s wisdom and perspective.
Earlier this year, my second and final term came to an end as a member of the Board of Directors for a nonprofit organization that provides literacy and enrichment programs for elementary students from low-income families. At my final board meeting, the staff gave me and three other outgoing board members customized plaques to commemorate our tenure. My plaque featured a handwritten note from a student, thanking donors for supporting the program, along with a drawing of a giant bird telling two kids sharing a book to “Be Cool.”
That is terrific advice for virtually any occasion, especially one as meaningful and bittersweet as that was. It also helped me realize just how fulfilling of an experience it has been – not just because it’s an organization that does an incredible amount of good in its community, but also because of what I’ve learned about leadership and service that I can carry forward.
During my six years on the board, the organization experienced periods of both transition and tremendous growth. There were staff changes, budget shortfalls, and a new president to hire. There were various crises to address, new programs and fundraising strategies to implement, and a new strategic vision to carry forward, which included a rebranding effort and an organization name change.
Board service is an important part of community involvement, but one that is sometimes treated as an after-thought involving transactional tasks of check-writing and rubber-stamping. Effective board work though – which I got to witness and engage in firsthand – is not just a question of showing up. It demands having a strong personal belief and interest in an organization, its mission, and its vision. It’s a matter of thoroughly understanding the core work and culture of an organization. And it’s a matter of providing the right balance of guidance and support, and fulfilling the responsibilities of governance and strategic direction.
It’s also a fantastic way for emerging young leaders to get involved in their communities, take on new organizational roles, and shape and own different types of leadership skills.
Having now spent several years working under a board at two different organizations, and serving on the board of directors at two others, my own understanding of what’s at stake and what makes a strong board has evolved considerably. It’s also led to five takeaways to consider about future board service and nonprofit involvement.
There are many ways in. Board service can sometimes seem inaccessible, particularly for younger professionals or those not already engaged in nonprofit work. But there are numerous ways to get a foot in the door. Volunteering for an event or helping with fundraising for an organization are good ways to learn more and get involved. As well, many organizations have spots open for community members to serve on project-specific committees, which often require less time and are temporary. Reaching out to an organization’s staff or a current board member is a great way to find an entry point.
Get to know where the organization is in its life cycle. There are many iterations of the nonprofit life-cycle to draw on, but understanding an organization’s place on it will be helpful in carving out a role, engaging at the right level, and contributing your expertise. The differences between a startup phase, a growth phase, and an established phase demand different roles and responsibilities from a board, as well as staff. And understanding whether an organization is staff-driven or board-driven or a combination is essential to right-sizing a board member’s role.
Find your niche. New board members are often recruited with some specific expertise or perspective in mind – whether it’s financial acumen, program expertise, or communications experience. But a board member’s role doesn’t have to be confined to just that. Particularly with leaner, or less established organizations, there are numerous opportunities to engage in and contribute to other areas, whether it’s organizational development, hiring and personnel, fundraising, marketing, volunteer work, or other facets.
Contribute more than a check. The expectation of writing big checks isn’t necessarily a myth when serving on nonprofit boards, but for many organizations, the inability to do that is not a disqualifier. Non-monetary support and contributions are sometimes just as impactful as cutting a check. Providing leadership, sharing program expertise, supporting events, volunteering, and other efforts to support staff are also valuable to the overall growth and effectiveness of an organization.
Trust the staff. This doesn’t mean forgoing accountability and performance management, quite the contrary. It does mean providing the room and space for staff to do their jobs. Each organization has a different board/staff dynamic. For some, the only go-between is the CEO or executive director, which comes with its own tradeoffs in transparency and accountability. For others, it’s a more collaborative relationship, where board members engage with staff around key issues and projects. The latter can often result in a more thorough understanding of the core competencies of staff, help avoid micromanagement, and foster a stronger sense of trust between staff and board.
What’s The Risk?
Serving on a nonprofit board is no small thing. You become an ambassador of sorts. You help set the strategic direction for an organization. And you take on a collective responsibility to help an organization fulfill its mission. The risk is that this kind of service takes a lot of time, the path is not always clear, and there are innumerable obstacles to success. Those are big tradeoffs to make. But the reward is that board service – and strong board leadership – is an essential part of the success and effectiveness of social change and strong communities. It’s also an incredibly fulfilling way to contribute your time, energy, and expertise in supporting causes and communities you care deeply about.
This content was written and shared by guest blogger Scott Downes.
Scott Downes is the founder and principal of Thomas LLC, an independent consulting venture specializing in strategy development, project management, and strategic communications support for foundations, nonprofits, and other social change organizations. Scott has more than 15 years of experience managing complex projects and campaigns in the nonprofit, public, and political sectors. An Indiana native and graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Scott now lives in Denver, CO.