You were just invited to join the board of a nonprofit organization you really care about.  It’s a great organization, doing meaningful work.  Plus, you’ll be able to use your skills and gain new ones.  A win win.

You attended board orientation and have a website full of information at your fingertips about how to do your new volunteer job well.  But, still, you don’t quite know where to begin.  All that information, combined with your desire to do a good job, are making you hesitate.

Don’t worry.  During your tenure, you will have plenty of time to grow and learn and become proficient in all you need to know.  For now, simply focus on three main things.  They will guide you on this new journey.

First, remember always to care.  When you walk in the door or pick up the phone for a meeting of the board or a committee, engage with both your head and your heart.  Remember why you’re there, why you care about the cause, and don’t let yourself tune out, get distracted by email or anything else that allows you to disengage.  Make sure you are present – in all that means.

Second, ask as many questions as you need to.  I know it’s tempting to be quiet and just take it all in.  But it’s incredibly important for you to ask whatever questions you have when you join a board…and to keep asking them.  Although you may think that you’re the only one with the question, guess what?  You’re not.  Even though others have been on the board longer than you, many may have wondered about the exact same thing that you have and never voiced it.  So ask away.

Third, listen.  If you are going to ask, then you have to listen to what follows.  Actively work to retain what’s shared with you.  Take notes, ask follow up questions to clarify what you’re told.  Read the documents you are given.  Take it all in.

If you do these three things, and make them your focus from the beginning, then getting engaged with the work of the board will be much easier.  That work, that governance role you are filling, is essential to the future of the organization.  With your heart and mind engaged, turn your attention to these important actions:

  • Understanding the mission so well that you can talk about it, at a moment’s notice, to whomever you meet.  You need to become an evangelist for the organization.  If the mission doesn’t resonnate with you the way it’s stated, then bring that up with your fellow board members and the CEO.
  • Understanding the strategic plan and the course it is charting for the organization’s future.  Take the time to read the plan, think about the plan and understand the key metrics that will be used to show progress against the plan.  Strategic plans ARE NOT static documents.  They are guides, and you should plan to go on a journey with the organization, with the guide as your map.  Make sure you know where you are at any one point in this process.
  • Focusing on the organization’s top five annual goals.  Review the goals set in place by the board and the CEO working together.  These goals should hit many of the main areas of which you as a board member will need to have oversight — financial objectives and health; program effectiveness and growth; people management and retention for the organization; and special initiatives.  There may be others, but if money, program metrics, and people aren’t in the goal mix, something’s wrong.  And that would be time to, you got it, raise the issue with your fellow board members and the CEO.

Remember, your work — as you care, ask and listen — is to govern, not to manage.  You are there to provide oversight, to review, to ask, to challenge, and to ensure the organization meets its mission objectives.  Although you may raise valid questions about how the work is being done, resist the urge to meddle in fixing the actually processes yourself.  That’s the job of your CEO and the CEO’s team.  They are the ones who should manage, reporting back to you through the CEO about progress on the goals and plans the board has blessed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Hutchisson is the vice president of corporate citizenship and philanthropy at Blackbaud, headquartered in Charleston, SC.  She is responsible for the company’s global corporate citizenship efforts, a role that allows her to leverage her 20+ years of experience of working with nonprofit partners.  She is a member of the board of directors for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) International, the Giving Institute (producers of Giving USA), and the Coastal Community Foundation.  She is also a Past President of the AFP SC Lowcountry chapter. Rachel is a graduate of Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, and received a master’s degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.  A member of Phi Beta Kappa, she is a Renaissance Weekend participant and was the recipient of the Charleston Regional Business Journal’s Influential Women in Business Rising Star Award.  Rachel is an avid soccer fan and spends far too much time driving to remote parts of the state to watch her children play.  Connect with Rachel on Twitter at @RachelHutchssn or on LinkedIn.

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