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Confessions of a Nonprofit Board Member - 7 Dos and Don'ts

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Over the last 20 years I have had the honor – and sometimes the frustration – of serving on more than a dozen different nonprofit boards. The good far outweighs the bad, but enough various situations have arisen that I felt compelled to share my favorite pet peeves on what not to do. As in the classic television show Dragnet, the names have been changed to protect the innocent, as well as the guilty.

One of my dear friends in the nonprofit sector, Simone Joyaux, recently authored and released what is sure to be a charity sector classic book “Firing Lousy Board Members.” It is a must-read for anyone associated with a nonprofit board.

As I read this wonderful piece of work, my mind kept placing me in various board meetings, retreats and yes, even a few “executive committee” meetings from the past 20 years.

(Simone, please forgive for saying I was actually part of an executive committee since you are literally on a mission to eliminate them!)

So, in no particular order, here are my board meeting dos and don’ts:


1. Please Have an Agenda with a Timeline

It is the latter portion of the sub-title above that is most often missing.

We all know that if you have people who have scheduled the board meeting within a busy personal schedule, which will be the case more often than not if you properly recruited powerful board members, you must stay within the meeting timeframe.

If you ALWAYS go over or under, please change the allotted board meeting time frame.

An agenda is a must. The timeline allows the board chairman to make the decision to borrow time from a topic or two if needed to make up for the topics that go over their allotted time.

If they are about to go way over, you may need to create an ad hoc committee to explore and report back at the next meeting or save for the longer time period of a board retreat.

Yes, I have been in board meetings that have continued on for two or more hours past the stated ending time. This is usually not good for most of the board members and has always been when there is no agenda timeline. Doing this three or more times in a row usually lead to multiple board member resignations.

2. Listening to Quarterly Operation Reports Should Not Be the Crux of a Meeting

Sure, it is OK to report at a high level what is going on with operations. However, massive spreadsheets with scores of numbers are only meaningful to the folks managing the particular area being reported upon and hopefully the executive director of the nonprofit.

My preference is a high-level scorecard based upon a traffic light metaphor. Pick no more than 5-10 key metrics to show in the scorecard. Compare them to the most recent time period reported as well as the previous year and most importantly the budget. If it is within budget, color or shade it in green. If it is within 10% of the budget, color or shade it in yellow. If the particular metric missed the budget by more than 10%, it should be in red.

The board chairman should focus the discussion on only the areas in red or maybe a single yellow or two if it is deemed a critical area. An example of critical area would be fundraising revenue or a critical measurement affecting your mission success.

3. Being Afraid of Strategic Discussion and Exploration of the Mission

One may ask how you fill up precious board meeting time if you are not reviewing reports and financials. Here is how:

Strategic Discussion and Enhanced Mission Understanding

Close your eyes and think about the very best board meetings you have been part of. I am betting you were part of a lively, if not downright loud discussion about a topic strategic to the charity or a testimonial about what the mission is at it’s very core to the people served.

I have been moved to tears by just such testimonials at a board meeting and literally decided right then and there to up my involvement and giving!

Do not be worried about a strategic discussion that leads to opposing viewpoints. It is OK to not always have unanimous voting on motions. That is why you recruited a board comprised of diversity and brainpower!

Such debates lead to clarification of key issues and makes every single board member feel INVOLVED and NEEDED. It also leads to much better attendance because they will not want to miss anything that exhilarating rather than boring.

Sometimes strategic discussions are primary to enhancing board member understanding. One of personal favorites for a strategic discussion is exploring the charity’s current donor retention rate and what factors are influencing it!

4. Not Using Committees Properly

The proper use of committees is an outstanding method to achieve the following:

  • More personal interaction of the board members via smaller groups
  • Involving non board members (key to future recruiting)
  • Keeping committee members engaged between board meetings
  • Provide more time for in depth research and discussion of critical items
  • Moves bigger initiatives forward
  • Providing more details for the larger board to debate
  • Keep vital work going year round for essential items like finance, governance, fundraising, marketing, operations, etc.

Notice, I did not use the term “executive committee!”

The use of an executive committee destroys the meaning of truly being a full board member of any organization. What I am about to say may sound harsh, but perhaps every board would be stronger and more engaged if this axiom was followed: if you do not need my brain and my opinion on critical matters and you only want me to rubber stamp what a few people think, then just make the board the size of the former executive committee and leave me out.

5. No Board Orientation or Written Expectations

The above items seem to be so basic as to not needing to be mentioned. However, only a portion of the nonprofit boards I have served upon provided both of the above items.

A board orientation is special and a springboard to success for every situation I have seen it used in. Such an orientation sets the stage for better understanding of the mission, what is happening in the board meetings, what committees are in place and are used for and perhaps most important what is expected of me as a board member.

The best orientations I have been part of are 2-3 hours long and take place before the attendance at a first board meeting. They usually involve the board chairman and/or standing committee heads as well as key staff members of the charity. They lead to so much better understanding and in most cases increased involvement.

A key portion of the orientation is a written set of expectations for each new board member. This should also be renewed annually just like possible conflict of interest statements. These expectations should include basics like meeting attendance, committee involvement, time commitments and more advanced items like fundraising involvement, volunteer activities and of course personal giving. This document should be reviewed and signed prior to the first board meeting.

A signed requirements document for board membership establishes clear expectations for everyone.

6. Little or No Diversity or Youth on the Board

Lack of diversity is often alluded to, but not so often are clear initiatives set to alleviate the situation. The only way to have a full representation of all of the supporters, volunteers and even the people served by the charity’s mission is to strive for diversity on the board.

Diversity to me means involving as many ends of the spectrum as possible for:

  • Age
  • Ethnic background and race
  • Economic means
  • Male and female
  • Local and long distance
  • Occupation
  • Education

This is not easy. It requires focus and effort. However, the rewards are many.

The first item on the diversity list was age. Why do so many boards shy away from youth? (Ironically, so many boards wonder why they are not reaching a younger group of volunteers or supporters.)

Youth bring so much to the table including fresh views, energy, compassion, and perhaps most importantly, their peers! What a perfect feeder system to an outstanding board in future decades. Need I say more?

7. No Current or Annually Updated Strategic Plan

Yes, I saved a truly important one for last.

The mere exercise of creating and then keeping a strategic plan in place is more than essential for any nonprofit. It is literally the blueprint for the board and staff to follow daily. It helps guide and influence important decisions as well as keeping the core mission and objectives in the forefront and on track.

Should the core ingredients of the strategic plan be debated? Absolutely! Should they be reviewed and updated from time to time? Without a doubt!

Make sure your charity has a current strategic plan, share it in board orientations and use it to drive successful results.


There you have them, the inner soul confessions of a person who loves being a board member for numerous nonprofits. Even with a few of these pet peeves hanging around, I can truthfully say every single board experience has allowed me to personally grow. In fact, each one has given me far more in return than I have given in my time, talents and treasure!

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  • Kim

    Hi Jay. Would like your point of view on having board members of a non-profit that actually have a manager/employee relationship as their day job.
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