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The Formal Role of the Board of Directors in Nonprofit Organizations


Last week we covered “Key Function Areas in Nonprofit Organizations.” This week we’ll cover the formal role of the board of directors in nonprofit organizations.

When you mention the words board of directors to the average person, what picture do you think they are likely to invoke? Possibly images of sharply dressed men and women sitting around a conference room table making important decisions. Now, ask that same average person to describe the primary responsibility of the board of directors and I would bet very few will be able to give you a definitive answer.

The mission and goal of nonprofit organizations is to deliver many key social services, as well as seek to identify and solve social problems. In fields such as health, education, economic development and social welfare, the nonprofit sector does much to make this world a better place. The reality of most thriving nonprofits is that board members also must provide additional volunteer help if the organization is to succeed.

Nonprofit organizations rely heavily on the tireless and unselfish work of their volunteer committee and board members. Serving as a member of a board of directors of a nonprofit organization can be one of the most important, influential and satisfying experiences of one’s life. Unfortunately, many people have unpleasant stories to tell about their experiences as board members. This unpleasantness may occur if staff leaders are not respectful of the volunteer and the time they give to the agency. Respect is shown by starting and ending the meetings on time and preparing meeting agendas that have meat to them.

Individuals serve on boards for a whole variety of reasons. All too often board members of a small, nonprofit organization do not really understand the purpose of the board and the work they are expected to do. An effective board of a nonprofit organization should understand and be committed to its role and responsibilities for the good work being done by the organization.

Sometimes, the board recruitment process is weak, and the board is simply a group of friends or professional colleagues. Other times, these volunteer board members are overwhelmed by, or leave all decisions to the CEO.

In smaller organizations there are fewer paid staff members, often resulting with the volunteers essentially doing a significant amount of the work. At times, regardless of the organization’s size, positions become somewhat unclear as to the undefined or defined roles of paid staff and unpaid volunteers. That is the very reason why the CEO should clearly define the role and responsibilities of its board and staff and to plainly determine who is responsible for what tasks each should be expected to perform.

Every nonprofit organization desires the help of its board in critical areas such as strategic planning, fundraising and community relations. The staff leaders and the organization will be less effective without the active involvement of the board in these areas. The board’s formal responsibilities will vary depending on the needs of the organization.

In general, board members should assist staff in strengthening the organization and are charged with planning and making policy decisions while ensuring the agency has ample resources that maintain their focus on the organization’s mission.

Finally, the nonprofit board should provide oversight to ensure compliance with applicable laws and ethical standards.

The key concept here is developing a partnership between the board and the top executive. The board’s aim should be to help the staff, not replace, command, undermine or micro-manage the agency. Clearly, board and staff are partners in much of their work and will serve the organization best if a “team” attitude can be cultivated from the start.

No one single person is bigger than the organization. That includes both staff and volunteers. There is no place for huge ego’s when you want to instill a team approach in your agency. Best practice dictates to recognize, honor and acknowledge your staff and board. If the staff’s star brightly shines, then in the end, the CEO’s will too.

Next week in this series, we’ll continue to cover the roles of the board of directors in nonprofit organizations.


Gary Bernstein

Gary Bernstein currently serves as CEO of the Jewish Community Alliance of Northeastern Pennsylvania and an Advisory Board Member of Community Rec Magazine. Gary Bernstein has proudly authored the textbook, "The Fundamentals of Sports Marketing" with Sagamore Publishing and "Nonprofit Sport and Recreation Programs: Principles and Practices of Leadership and Management" by Sentia Publishers. For more information, call 757.667.0293 or email gary.bernstein@nepajca.org.

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