Who Should Serve on My Nonprofit’s Board?

April 12, 2018

Empty board roomNonprofits depend upon effective leadership to successfully enact their missions and programs. Effective leadership consists of a partnership between the board and management, each of which plays an essential role. Understanding and negotiating these shared and complex elements of leadership is essential to the organization’s success. A nonprofit’s employees and volunteers are fundamental to its ability to achieve its mission.

Board members are in a position of trust to ensure that resources are used to carry out the mission of the organization. An organization’s board leadership should consist of volunteers who are committed to the mission and who demonstrate an understanding of the community served. An effective nonprofit board should determine the mission of the organization, establish management policies and procedures, assure that adequate human and financial resources are available, and actively monitor the organization’s allocation of resources to effectively and efficiently fulfill its mission.

Developing a board of committed individuals who believe in and are willing to work hard to help an organization achieve its mission is one of the keys to success for nonprofit organizations. It is also one of the most important and challenging responsibilities facing the board of directors. An organization’s board, while performing all the ongoing tasks involved in governance, must also plan for its future.

The Standards for Excellence® code recommends that every organization pay close attention to the composition of its board of directors. The board should be composed of no fewer than five to seven unrelated individuals who:

  • Are personally committed to the mission of the organization
  • Collectively reflect the diversity of the communities served by the organization
  • Are volunteers, serving without compensation other than reimbursement for expenses related to their direct service

The Standards for Excellence® code also recommends that board service be subject to term limits, so that board members rotate off the board after a fixed number of years of service.

Individuals may have a variety of motivations for serving on a nonprofit board of directors. Board service presents opportunities for board members to make business contacts, to achieve a position of respect in the community, to learn and professionally develop, and even to have fun. While these are all legitimate reasons for serving on a board, they certainly shouldn’t be the only reasons to serve.

Most organizations want their board members to be passionate about the organization’s mission, and for good reason. The committed board member is much more likely to devote time and effort required for the job. S/he is more likely to regularly attend board meetings, take on committee roles and responsibilities, educate her/himself about the work of the organization, make personally significant charitable contributions, and be an effective advocate of and promoter for the organization wherever s/he may be. If primarily motivated by the organization’s mission and program, rather than by personal goals and concerns, conflicts of interest and other inappropriate situations may be less likely to occur. While passion is important, boards need to assure that the ranks of their board members are filled with individuals who will seriously and responsibly meet the expectations set for each individual board member and the board as a whole.

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From the Standards for Excellence®: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector. The Standards for Excellence code, developed by the Standards for Excellence Institute, includes specific benchmarks and measures that provide a structured approach to building capacity, accountability, and sustainability in your nonprofit organization. The code identifies 6 major areas of nonprofit governance and management: Mission, Strategy, and Evaluation; Leadership: Board, Staff, and Volunteers; Legal Compliance and Ethics; Finance and Operations; Resource Development and Fundraising; and Public Awareness, Engagement


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