The Board Member Role in Your Organization

For your board to serve your organization well it is important to have clarity about the roles of the board and the board members. When prospective board members and the nominating committee can discuss expectations during the recruiting process, new board members can be set up for success. Let’s explore some of the roles of non-profit board members by considering three ways the role can be defined.

We often describe three different categories of boards. Each positions board members for very different roles. On working boards the board members make senior level decisions for the organization and do a notable amount of the day-to-day work of the organization. On governing boards the board members make senior level decisions for the organization and delegate all the day-to-day responsibilities to the staff and operational volunteers. Some governing board members choose to also serve in an operational volunteer capacity, but that is not expected of them as board members. The third category of board is the advisory board. Since the third type does not have any decision making authority, we suggest that it be called an advisory council to reduce role confusion. Advisory councils share their insights so that the staff or official board can make more informed decisions.

Why People Serve on Boards

Sometimes non-profit leaders wonder why individuals who were clambering to join their board are not turning out to be effective board members. Often this happens when the motivation for the new board members to join the board was not what others assumed it to be.

There are diverse reasons people join non-profit boards. Six common reasons are summarized below.

1. To give back to the community in some way.

2. To contribute time and talents to a cause about which they are passionate.

3. To get more deeply connected or move up the organizational chart with an organization with which they have had rewarding volunteer service experiences.

4. To satisfy an employer’s expectation that they be involved in the community as part of the company’s community engagement strategy.

5. To build their resume by serving in respected volunteer positions in the community.

6. To enhance their skills so they can move on to more diverse, interesting, and challenging opportunities in life.

When everyone isn’t on the same page, the new board members, the experienced board members, and the senior staff are all disenchanted with the relationship. Prepare up front for mutually beneficial experiences by asking prospective board members why they wish to join the board and only nominating those whose motivation serves the organization’s needs.

Generative Governance

In “Governance as Leadership”, Chait et al state that Type III governance is generative governance. This entails the board searching for new meaning in the organization’s and the community’s reality. The board looks to the future and considers what the organization might achieve and how it can respond in new ways to the changing environment in which it works. Board members believe that they can add value to the organization. They are not just there to rubber stamp CEO recommendations.

If boards really want to lead an organization, if they want to make a notable impact for the community or the shareholders, they will prove the maxim “two heads are better than one”. The diverse group of competent individuals will add great value to the organization by sharing insights, innovations, and wisdom. All board members will wear their thinking caps and generate and express valuable thoughts. The CEO can then determine the best way to incorporate the board’s ideas and direction for optimal organizational results.

This concept of generative governance is also seen in the “direct”, “reflect”, and “respect” disciplines in Strive!’s Governance Excellence Model (GEM). For boards to truly be leaders of their organizations they must fully engage in charting new ground that raises the organization to new heights.

Generative boards proactively position the organization to greet the future with notable success.

Strategic Governance

In “Governance as Leadership”, Chait et al state that Type II governance is strategic governance.
This refers to the board being active in the organization’s strategic decision making. This includes the full board being engaged in the strategic planning process to determine high level priorities that guide the organization for meaningful impact. It also involves monitoring operational progress to ensure appropriate progress towards the stated measurable goals. In strategic governance the board directs the organization and expects management to implement strategy that achieves the goals. This concept of strategic governance might be compared to the “direct” and “expect” disciplines in Strive!’s Governance Excellence Model (GEM). If boards wish to be seen as organizational leaders they need to engage in the leadership activities that are encompassed in strategic governance.

Fiduciary Governance

In “Governance as Leadership”, Chait et al state that Type I governance is fiduciary governance. This is a basic requirement of all boards with official decision-making authority for the organization. Fiduciary governance refers to the board’s role to provide oversight to the organization’s activities. The board ensures that resources are used to serve the organization’s mandate or purpose and that it operates in a legal and ethical manner. This concept of fiduciary governance might be compared to the “protect” discipline in Strive!’s Governance Excellence Model (GEM). It is a fundamental responsibility of the board to protect the organization’s resources and its owners’ interests. This fiduciary responsibility is the board’s responsibility. It cannot legitimately be delegated to anyone else.