Last week I wrote about systems. In that post, I highlighted management as one of the areas of work where systems are needed. For instance, to specify the role, responsibilities and tasks of your board in relation to those of the director. In other words, how do you organize supervision and implementation in your organization? How are checks and balances set up and maintained? This defines what kind of board you need.
What kind of organization do you want to be?
The first question to consider is: what kind of organization do you want to be? Do you want to be an organization with (individual) members who decide and who task an elected board with implementation? Or do you want to set up an organization with an appointed board that hires a director for implementation?
There is no right or wrong here, but there is a choice to be made.
I have been a member of a board in both types of organization and there is a big difference in how you are engaged as a board member. No real difference in the commitment you feel. But a big difference in how much time you spend. And a big difference in what people in the organization expect and need from you.
Please note that in neither case, board members are paid for their work. They are reimbursed for expenses incurred for the organization. Sometimes they get a small amount for being present at a meeting, but I have seen this happen only in multi-million dollar nonprofits. And even there, not all board members even accepted this money.
Roles and responsibilities of a board in a membership organization
In a membership organization the board is elected by the members at a general members meeting. Members are therefore the supervisors of the board. The board implements the strategies and policies that are approved at the members meeting. It is mandated to undertake all necessary actions to do so. The board must account for its activities (or lack of activities) to the members. In case the members are totally dissatisfied, they can vote that the board be dissolved or that one or more members have to resign.
Roles and responsibilities of a board in a non-membership organization
In a non-membership organization, implementation of approved plans is the responsibility of the director, who is in charge of a team. When a board member resigns, new board members are found and appointed by the remaining board members. The board approves strategies, policies, the annual budget and work plan. And the board is formally in charge of the annual audit. Most of these things are, however, prepared by the director, with help of the team. The board’s role is to ensure the nonprofit is acting in line with its vision, mission and values and is following its strategic directions. The board hires (and if needed fires) the director. But the board has no involvement with the other members of the team who are hired (and fired if need be) by the director.
What if the board wants to be involved?
If the board has a supervisory role, safeguarding the organization’s vision and mission, board members should not be involved in implementation. That would put them in the role of supervising themselves. Which makes the supervisory role incredible, and more importantly, it creates an unsafe situation for your team and for the community you serve.
In many cases, a supervisory board is the body where complaints can be filed. Imagine that a staff member had a complaint against someone they are working with. And that someone happens to be also a board member?
Don’t go there!
If a board member has special skills or knowledge and really wants to be involved in the work, let them be involved in the work. And let them step down from the board at the same time or even before. Do not mix roles!
In some contexts, board members are expected to donate to the nonprofit annually. They are also expected to make their network available to the nonprofit, and to approach their network for contributions. It is in some cases also expected that board members play a role in raising funds from private individuals, for instance at an event. It is up to you when starting your nonprofit to think about how you see the role of the board in this. This will likely impact who you will approach to become a board member and it may also impact their decision to say yes or no to a board position.
Small or large?
Depending on how you see the role and responsibilities of your board, you will have a bigger or a smaller board. The board I am currently serving on, as treasurer in a supervisory role, is very small. We fulfill the basic requirements of having a chair (sometimes called president), a treasurer, and a secretary/general board member. Basically, this size is too small for much work. But it is not always easy to find volunteers for a board position and we have to make do sometimes.
When I served on an elected board, we were between seven and nine people in all. We had one part time staff member to handle the office. This worked well.
Key is to ensure diversity. This can be achieved even in small numbers.
What size of board is good for your organization depends a lot on what you want the board to do, as I said above. This depends sometimes also on the stage of development of the organization. If you have a big board and meetings become burdensome, you can think of splitting the board into two: a board with an advisory role and one fulfilling the supervisory role, meeting more often. This way you can keep on board members that do not have much time to take part in meetings and activities, but whose brain you like to pick. An advisory board usually meets only once or twice a year.
Another way of using a bigger board to its full potential is to form committees. You can have regular committees, that are functioning more or less permanently, and ad hoc committees that focus on a specific issue or event. A committee is mandated by the board for a specific task, and then reports back to the board for a decision before a next phase is entered into.
Sometimes you do not have many board members but feel a need for committees focusing on specific topics or tasks. You can then set up committees that are headed by a board member but whose members are non-board members. For instance, staff members, or members of the organization or members of the community you serve. In this case, you should be very clear that the function of the committee is to advise the board, not to decide.
If you are a small nonprofit, you may not yet be able to have a paid director. In that case, you can look for a volunteer director. This can also be someone serving on your board (who will then resign obviously). You could agree that the volunteer position is for a limited amount of time weekly and for a limited period, say 6 months, before a mutual evaluation of how this works out.
If your board is engaged in fundraising and is contributing itself, too, you can make a plan how the board can help raise funds to pay a director. Even if this is only for a small part time position at first. This way, the board can show commitment to the volunteer director. And show their belief that he or she can make this work in the end.
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