Serving as a Nonprofit Board Director, the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly… A lessons learned conversation…

by | Nov 2, 2019


ATTENTION! This is a reader engaging lessons learned activity! Think about what this suggests from a dear friend(s) and colleague(s), “running a nonprofit ain’t no picnic at the beach!” Neighbors for Kids, Depoe Bay, Oregon. I served as board director and officer from 2010 to 2016. What a ride! My first nonprofit board service experience was Village Art in the Park, Leavenworth, Wa from 1991 to 1996, including serving as chair for three years. Anyone serving on a nonprofit board, staff, committee, including stakeholders and partners, or interested in making a difference for your community, this is a worthy read!

Please begin this activity by reading the brief article in the link below.

Big Picture Realities

Serving is far more work than you anticipated… Until you experience this you will never know how much board members, staff and volunteers slave to build the best of the best nonprofit business model for a social services cause they love.

Far more responsibility than you may have understood or imagined, but highly rewarding. Count on a relatively few board members who are actually appropriately passionate, compassionate and empathetic toward the cause.

Social services non-profits, as an example, are often providing 24/7 essential community based services to the most vulnerable citizens in our community. The executive director’s passion and leadership is the difference between success and failure.

But, without a proactive, highly engaged board and larger community commitment to the cause, your non-profit will struggle to compete for funding…

It’s like a 3 legged stool…

No doubt it is far more frustrating than you considered. Serving on a board is thankless, believe me. The charity cause has to be part of your DNA. Don’t commit to board service if this makes you nervous about a time and energy commitment, please don’t do it!

Serve on a committee first. Try it, you might like it… This experience could be the most rewarding thing you have done in a lifetime of giving back to your community. Serving on boards and making a difference in my community has been a source of healing for me from a very challenging life history.

1) Board service may well be the hardest but most rewarding job in your life. It has been for me…

Board service is a very serious commitment. Board officers and directors have fiduciary and governance duties and must follow best practices as any other business enterprise.

Vetting good board members is the key to building a solid team of community building leaders who really care about the charity. There is a huge amount of “sweat equity” by board members, including investing in the non-profit’s future sustainability through in-kind services and money.

In the for profit business world it is called, “participation.” The most important ingredients to success are trust, respect, and confidence in each other as friends and colleagues.

Don’t hold back, communicate your passion and ideas. Board development and capacity building training must be an on-going priority with measured outcomes.

2) Your voice is as valuable at your first meeting as it is at your last.

Each and every board member has equal power to make a difference. It is in your commitment and participatory engagement that builds exponential capacity to make things happen in your community. When the full board is working together as a cohesive, strategy driven team with the executive director, staff and larger community, anything is possible!

3) You deserve a very good orientation.

The best advice I ever heard from a legacy donor about board service; “The good news, is you will not go to jail for being stupid.”

The most critical orientation for a new board member is learning the laws and executive management best practices connected with 501cX charity nonprofits. This is IMPORTANT!

Buddy up with a board member with experience, meet once a week for coffee/chat. Build relationships and trust. Work together to champion a new fund raising idea.

Pursue opportunities for building capacity with new community collaborations and partnerships. Learn how you can help and get engaged as a board member volunteer.

I have found that my empathy and compassion for the most vulnerable citizens we serve, increased ten fold. This kind of proactive engagement results in more passion, more energy, more personal satisfaction with the social cause and in succeeding as a star agency in your community.

Leading in the community as a nonprofit pays off big time with extra sweat equity on the part of board members. Hire a business development director. These highly skilled community building professionals pay for themselves 10 times over the long run by building a strong donor list, with estate planning and legacy giving strategies.

Here’s a template for a great board orientation.

4) The board is NOT an appendage to the organization.

Maximizing opportunities as a board in your social services space requires highly passionate and compassionate board members. This work is all about empathy and trust.

The staff of a nonprofit wouldn’t be there if they were not all in on the mission and probably have a life history connected to the cause. Don’t get in their way! Be a collaborator on the inside as well as community building on the the outside.

Don’t wait for the phone to ring, listen, learn, get involved, and take ownership. The board’s job is to build capacity for the charity cause with a long term goal of achieving sustainability. Board members are the very best citizens in communities all over America.

A well run nonprofit charity will recruit and retain volunteers far more effectively. When you love your community, they will love you back! We are the stewards of community owned nonprofits. It has always been an honor and priviledge to serve my community in this capacity.

5) You do NOT need to know rich people to be successful.

It’s worth knowing that the smaller donor ($100) living within your community represents a significant potential for incremental and sustainable funding. We can’t live off a “grant to grant pay period” for staff and operations.

Building a diversified funding strategy and portfolio is key to sustainability. Board members are the ‘sales arm’ of a charity! It is your passion about the cause that attracts new donors and funding opportunities.

For nonprofits fortunate enough, larger donations are more competitive with “bricks and morter” on the balance sheet. Identify and apply for earned income opportunities through larger community partnerships, especially upstream health care and social services connected with Medicaid population for the most vulnerable citizens in your community.

The social services landscape is changing dramatically and taking on more of the services related to the “social determinants of health care.” Start a new ‘innovation’ committee on your board to look at earned income opportunites and/or partnerships that open the door to building capacity.

The future is in public/private/philanthropic partnerships that leverage and scale social services to be more responsive and cost effective to the community.

6) Your passion for the organization must be greater than your fear of asking

“Passion is the #1 ingredient for successful board service. It’s also the ingredient to inviting people to know and do more for the organization.” Board members become the face to the community, community outreach champions.

Without the high energy, sense of urgency, and hypervigilence of great board members we have all known and love, the community would be unable to sustain vital and essential community based social services.

I have always been so grateful for the friends and colleagues who served with me over many decades, and treasure the fond memories and community successes.

7) If you miss two board meetings in a row, call your board chair.

If you are unable to attend regular board meetings and start to fall away, have a chat with your board chair. Maybe it is time to move on or get a new assignment that touches your heart.

Missing all the action of community events, regular and committee meetings, makes it hard for the rest of the team. I remember the worst of it on rare occassions when myriad personal and professional circumstances of board members made it very challenging for those of us left behind to pick up the pieces, requiring volunteer neighbors, along with back up temporary board director appointments.

It’s usually a big mess and no fun for your remaining friends and colleagues. I call it the “Humpty Dumpty” transition back to good governance and fiduciary stability. They will hate you for this, believe me! Your staff typically knows how to ride this wave…and keep the ship afloat. All heros in my mind…

8) You have power over staff – use it wisely and never abuse it.

“Do not get me started on abuse of power. The number of stories I hear about bullying and abusive board members just gobsmacks me. So two things… if you are joining a board because it feels powerful, go be powerful somewhere else. And secondly and more importantly, please call it out if you see it.” I can’t say this any better!

9) You need to give a gift that Is one of the top 3 charitable gifts you make.

My experience with board members gifts is very personal. Don’t push board members on this topic. Each person will make a commitment of their own choosing on their own time.

Gifts are both cash and in-kind. Board members who bring professional experience and skill sets to the board, are worth much appreciation and acknowledgement.

Think of the cost of professional services if board members offered experience and certain skills in fund raising and community building. Put it all together, building a diversified board with complementary skill sets and life experience is ideal and doable, no pipe dream.

10) PLEASE share rewarding stories of board service to folks by joining the conversation.

Please share your story! I can be reached at or leave a comment.

Steve & Judy Sparks Children and Families in Life After Trauma (CFLAT)

About the author

Steve Sparks is a retired information technology sales and marketing executive with over 35 years of industry experience, including a Bachelors’ in Management from St. Mary’s College. His creative outlet is as a non-fiction author, writing about his roots as a post-WWII US Navy military child growing up in the 1950s-1960s.
View all posts by stevesparks →

You might also like

Translate »