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What Makes a Good Board Member?

by Jeff Gau on May 24, 2018

As leaders, we’re often asked to join a board of directors – for a community cause, our industry or a business. It’s an opportunity for us to share our experience and skills with others. So, we oblige. But are we really being good board members?

How we participate matters. I still remember the very first board meeting that I participated in my early 30s. It was for a nonprofit that provided a home and services for single pregnant women, new mothers and their babies. The whole protocol was new to me, and I had to learn how to initiate a motion, participate in discussion and gain approval. Ultimately, I went on to become the board chair. It was a good experience.

From the beginning, it was clear that as board members, we have a fiduciary responsibility – or, as I see it, a role in ensuring the organization’s viability. Over the years, I have participated in a variety of boards, including our Marco board. While their missions vary, the primary purpose is usually some form of governance. That means assessing if the organization has the right structure, leadership and strategies to achieve its goals.

Today, as CEO, I encourage and support our Marco leaders to serve on boards. Serving is both a responsibility and a privilege. When we sign on, it’s important that we are effective in our role as board members – and not simply names on a list or in the meeting minutes. From my experience, here’s what it looks like to be a good board member:

  • Show up.
    It sounds simple, but have you checked your attendance record? Serving on a board means attending most of the meetings. If you’re not participating in at least 80 percent of the meetings, you’re falling short of your No. 1 duty. Make these meetings a priority on your calendar, and work to build your schedule around them. It’s not always easy, but showing up is critical to the job.
  • Be up to speed.
    Take the time to prepare before the meeting. Read the packet, do your homework and be ready to engage in the process. When you miss a meeting, you have extra time to invest to ensure you have the information you need to provide value in future meetings. This will prepare you to make decisions, especially the hard ones.
  • Speak up.
    Some people talk more than others. Some say more than others. Strive to do the latter. Seek meaningful opportunities to share a perspective or pose a question. Asking good questions can spark impactful dialogue that brings the board to the best decision.
  • Know the numbers.
    Some organizations do a better job than others simplifying the reporting of the key metrics. If the reports are not provided in an easy-to-understand format, ask for a change. (Your fellow board members will thank you.) All board members should be able to see at-a-glance how the organization is performing and where improvements need to be made. You shouldn’t need to be a CPA to understand and participate.
  • Sign up.
    Committee work is an inherent responsibility of every board member. Find a committee that interests you and get involved. This is where you can use your skill set to help make a difference in the organization. For one organization that I currently serve on, I’m involved in multiple committees and, yes, that means more meetings to attend. It is time well spent. Each of them gives me a deeper understanding of the organization and how I, as a board member, can more effectively govern.
  • Get to know the leadership.
    Every board member should build a trusted relationship with the executive leadership. With a strong leader, you can tackle just about anything – including the not-so-fun stuff that inevitably will come along the way. Get to know the leadership, including the top executives’ strengths, weaknesses, style and vision.
  • Drive up revenue.
    Start with your own personal financial contribution. Board members need to be supporters. That also means helping bring in revenue. Not everyone is comfortable with fundraising, but it is every board member’s responsibility. It ties back to our fiduciary responsibility and commitment to improving the vitality of the organization. Without money, you can’t execute on the mission.

Board involvement starts with interest and a commitment. If you’re really not all that interested in the organization’s mission, it becomes easier to miss a meeting and harder to contribute. Sometimes “no” is a good decision when asked to join a board. In situations where I’m appointed the board chair, my first order of business is to offer a “get off the board free” option. I’d rather have people “opt out” if they’re not “all in.” Being a good board member means commitment and active participation.

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Topics: Nonprofit, Community Involvement

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