Boards: About More than Just Money

Dear Kim,

I am new to the nonprofit world and to get my feet wet I have been interviewing several nonprofits to sit on their boards. With few exceptions, nonprofits seem to view board members either as cash cows or well connected citizens with access to those who have money. They seem to want only two things from board members 1) donations and/or 2) to serve as rainmakers. While this appears wise, I feel it is a one-eyed reason that is deficient in wisdom and depth. It seems little more than a shallow subterfuge for a hustle. If this is so, why lie? Why call it a board of directors at all? Why not just call it a board of donors or a board of rainmakers? What are the duties of a board member?
—A poor lamb caught in the cash cow pen

Dear Lamb,

You have written a mouthful! Let’s start with your last question which will provide insight into your other questions. The primary duty of a board member is called “fiduciary”–board members are to oversee the work of a nonprofit, making sure it stays mission focussed, that it spends money properly and that it raises the money it needs appropriately. Board members hire and fire the executive director, approve budgets and monitor spending, make sure the organization obeys the law, set policy and monitor programs. I could say a lot more about any of these, but don’t need to as the duties of board members are well described by a group called the National Center for Nonprofit Boards in a wide variety of wonderful publications they have. They are in Washington DC and their website is: http://www.ncnb.org .

Because the duties of a board member have a lot to do with finances, it follows that board members need to give money themselves (i.e. test the proposition that the group is worth supporting against their own bank accounts) and help raise money. Board members set an example of what they would like the community to do with regard to their organizations. For years and years, board members have (understandably) been reluctant to help raise money and even in some cases, to give money themselves. So people like me traveled far and wide helping organizations build better boards, recruit board members who were willing to raise and give money in addition to their other tasks, and teaching reluctant people how to do fundraising. I now feel that my colleagues and I have truly created a monster. Organizations have forgotten that the primary reason someone would join a board is that they CARE DEEPLY about the issue the group addresses. A board’s role is to help support and expand the knowledge of the staff, provide ideas, help brainstorm solutions, participate in setting program and policy. Although legally the board is the supervisor of the paid staff (the director in particular), ideally both parties see each other as players on the same team, pulling in the same direction, helping each other do the best job possible to accomplish the mission of the group.

Now, from fundraising being ONE thing board members need to help with, it has become the SINE QUA NON for selection. You can see from your own experience what a turn-off this is. Plus, it is not attracting “cash cows” and “rainmakers” because no one wants to be only that and be used in that way. So being a board member and working with board members as a staff is becoming increasingly frustrating. One Executive Director told me that the best way he had found to “deal with the board” (which he made sound like, “deal with hemorrhoids”) was to “think of them like mushrooms–they do best when kept in the dark and fed manure.” I also know many activists who will not serve on boards anymore at all. They will volunteer in other ways for a group, but being a board member does not satisfy at all.

Having said all this, I still see many organizations where board and staff are a team and I think being a board member can be a satisfying experience. I encourage you to look for that. Fundraising and giving money according to your means is part of being a board member–part of a whole, which includes much more. Good luck.
—Kim