Your first day on the Board is kind of like the first day of school.
Everything is fresh and new, and the future holds so much promise.
You’re excited because you believe in the organization’s mission, and you really want to help, but you’re not exactly sure what that looks like.
Then reality sets in when you realize how much you don’t know.
You’re trying to understand the nonprofit’s programs and lingo. There are tons of acronyms to figure out. The staff wants all the Board to help out with fundraising, and wait, what? Ask for money? They’re kidding, right?
And yet that’s how it feels.
Being a new member of the Board can be overwhelming. There’s so much to learn.
There’s no Board School to send them to so they can learn their job. For most, it’s on-the-job training, which means toss ‘em in and see if they sink or swim.
As someone who has trained hundreds of Board members how to do their job, and someone who has served on several Boards, I’d like to share a few things that might make it easier for Board newbies.
Here are 10 things that every new Board member needs to know, to help ease the transition into Board service.
1. You have a learning curve ahead. They will firehose information at you during orientation and you’ll forget most of it. It’s okay. Just make the effort to keep learning everything you can about the nonprofit. Make it a point to learn something about the organization each week. At the end of a few months, you’ll feel more confident. At the end of a year, you’ll be an old pro.
2. Bring your talents, skills, and connections to the table. You’re not just another pretty face. The organization needs what you have. Don’t wait for the staff or another Board member to ask you to help, find a place where you can be of the most service and jump in. Offer up what you’re best at. It’s what you’re there for.
3. Be prepared to spend some time on Board work. If you’re expecting to spend an hour a month fulfilling your Board duties, you may not be the best person to serve on this Board. Board members should not only show up for Board meetings, they should also serve on a committee, and help out in other ways as needed. You are now a leader of the organization, and you need to spend some time providing leadership. And besides, the more involved you are, the more you’ll know about the nonprofit and the easier it will be to talk to friends and family about the organization’s mission.
4. Spend time on the front lines (the earlier in your Board term, the better). Getting up close to the nonprofit’s work in action is the best way to immerse yourself and quickly understand what the programs are all about. Plus it will give you your own story to tell and that’s always a good thing. You’ll likely come away with a renewed passion for the importance of the work.
5. Ask questions. It’s perfectly okay for you to ask questions when you don’t understand something. In fact, it’s your responsibility. You’re there to provide leadership. It won’t make you look stupid to ask for clarification on a subject or to hear the back story. It’s also okay to disagree with the rest of the Board. Your opinion matters, so voice it.
6. Give to the organization. You need to make a donation to the nonprofit you sit on the Board of. You’re a leader. People in the community will be looking to see what the Board does before they make their own gift. If the leaders don’t support the organization financially, why should anyone else? Yes, you’re giving your time and talent. You need to give treasure, too. And not from your company, although that would be nice. You need to make a personal financial gift. No getting out of it.
7. Understand how fundraising works. If you’re hesitant about helping with fundraising, don’t worry – There’s more to it than asking for money. If you aren’t comfortable asking, get involved in thanking donors, finding new donors, helping to spread the word about the nonprofit, or bringing other resources to the table. There are ALL kinds of ways you can be helpful without asking someone for money.
8. Make the effort to understand the financial statements. You don’t get a pass if you’re not a numbers person. Too bad. Buck up and learn to read the financial statements. Pay attention to the Finance reports and don’t rubber stamp them. If this ship goes down, you may go down with it because as a member of the Board, you now have some personal responsibility for the nonprofit. Try to learn or understand one thing a month about the financials, and after a year, you’ll be much more knowledgeable and confident.
9. Practice talking to people about the organization. Learn some words and phrases you can use to describe the nonprofit’s work. Ask staff and other Board members what they say when they’re describing the organization. You’re an ambassador in the community – be prepared to highlight the mission and the difference the organization is making.
10. Don’t be a problem child. Nonprofit staff are overworked. You wouldn’t believe all the stuff they’re trying to get done in a day. So do your part – respond to phone calls, emails, and texts. Don’t make the staff chase you down to get an RSVP or the answer to a question. You’re here to help, not cause more problems.
Learning to be a good Board member is like anything else: it won’t happen overnight. Just like learning to ride a bike, it takes some practice and you’ve got to stick with it. Eventually, you’ll learn how to balance and then the fun begins!
Enjoy your Board journey!