The Value and Work of Board Service

I’ve had an itch to write this post about what it’s like to serve on a board of directors, but have been held up by the fact that I’m not an expert on board service, not by a long shot. I’ve only served on one board, although that was for 11 years. I kind of felt it would be similar to me writing a post about dating and relationships, when I’ve only ever had two real boyfriends in my life, one of whom I’m still married to. But then I figured that maybe sharing a few observations from my board service days might be helpful to those of you who know absolutely nothing about board service and might want to try it out.

Not that it’s easy to just stroll into board service. One does not simply hop on a board, or apply to be on a board. For big-deal organizations and companies, one usually has to wait to be asked, and usually the individuals whom many boards want to recruit are already much sought-after by other organizations and companies. Mostly, organizations want board members who have lots and lots of money, or the ability to connect that organization to lots and lots of money, even though I think it’s super-helpful to have many types of expertise on a board.

Fast Company recently published an article on how nonprofit boards continue to be mostly rich, white, and unsure how to change that, and my first reaction to the article was, “Well, DUH.” I mean, nonprofits want to grow their donor base. Publicly-held companies want to impress investors. Much of the country’s wealth is still concentrated in the hands of rich white people—and we have a lot to learn about the service and giving preferences of groups of color. So yes, people are still seeking out the known quantities for their boards.

It’s a damn shame, though (it speaks to the opportunities for engaging people of color on philanthropy and service), because even though money can beget more money, organizations are so much better-served when diversity goes beyond lip service. When I served on a nonprofit board, I was able to bring money into the organization, even though I wasn’t rich, because I worked for large foundations during most of my board tenure. But despite how sorely-needed those foundation grants might have been, I still, to this day, think that the greater part of my contribution had to do with the time and energy I invested in my board service and the perspectives I was able to bring to the table. I was invited to join that board for a host of reasons—the org wanted a representative from my organization, my boss (the previous rep) no longer had the time to serve, AND he wanted to create an opening and opportunity for me, bless his soul. (He was a very good mentor and boss in that way.) I was bewildered at the time about what it meant to be a board member, and didn’t fully appreciate the honor and the opportunity when I first joined. And then, I slowly figured out what the role was about, at least for me. Here is a summary of what I learned:

YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ORGANIZATION: When I joined the board of this organization, it was in a period of decline (it has since roared back to health). And I will admit that the question crossed my mind, in those early days of finding out how bad things really were, of whether the thing was worth saving. But once that question crossed my mind, I was surprised by how powerful a sense of ownership and responsibility I already felt for the organization. Simply put, the organization was a place where I, as a young communications professional, found valuable advice and networking and mentorship. And I felt like the next generations of communication professionals might need those same opportunities. I had a vital share of this rescue mission, and it was waaay too late to not care about it and walk away.

YOU CAN DEFINE YOUR VALUE AND CONTRIBUTIONS AS A BOARD MEMBER IN MULTIPLE WAYS: The subject of giving and non-giving board members has been a topic in fundraising circles, because some people have access to big dollars and some don’t.  And a colleague of mine on that board very thoughtfully offered this way of thinking about board member contributions: “You can offer time, treasure, or talent. And we should learn to value all contributions, especially for different times and for different endeavors.” In thinking about the “time, treasure, and talent” construct, I ended up feeling so much prouder of the conferences and programming I helped plan, or the effort I put into managing an executive director transition, than I did of the grant dollars I helped bring in the door.

ASSESS MUTUAL BENEFIT: I was surprised at how many people view board service as an important credential for their resume. I started to get it after I became board chair and people congratulated me, which I found weird, because as far as I knew, I had just agreed to do a volunteer job that would add about 50% workload to my already-busy day job, so what were the congratulations for, exactly? But people do find board service impressive, and I now get that. My only thing is: if you value the credential, earn it. Assess your board service by the “time, treasure, or talent” metric and if you’re doing squat on all fronts, then please, please graciously resign your board service, unless you’ve heard a very good argument that your name on the board has marquee value, in and of itself. There ARE people on many boards who hardly ever show up or do any work, but are still important to attracting other people who MIGHT show up and MIGHT do the work. (Although I admit: I have little patience for people who don’t show up and don’t do the work.)

SPEAKING OF WHICH: BOARD SERVICE IS WORK: For most companies and organizations I know, prepping for board meetings is a sh-t-ton of work. As a board member, you owe them the return of being engaged (but not overly directive or prying) and informed.

At a minimum, most boards are responsible for: hiring and managing the CEO/President/Executive Director. Approving annual budgets. Ensuring good governance. Approving big shifts in organizational policy. Approving strategic plans. Fundraising, if relevant. Being a brand ambassador for the company/organization. And, if crisis hits, being the spokesperson and main media contact for the organization.

So with all that on your plate, show up. Do the work.

IF IT’S A TON OF WORK, WHY DO I WANT TO DO THIS, ANYWAY? Well, there’s the aforementioned credential, for one thing. Prospective employers or other entities where you’re on display will see your board service and think that you have at least some passing familiarity with a senior leadership role. But more than that, it’s an opportunity to lead, and learn about an entirely different type of leadership than having an executive position. When you are on a board, you don’t report to anyone. You are responsible to the group, and to the organization, but you have to learn how to hold yourself accountable within a model of distributed leadership where everyone has the same authority you do, except maybe for the officers, and you don’t really report to them, either.

Serving on the board means doing the work of governance, of ensuring the health and success of an organization and all of its employees, of making sure that finances are all in order and the strategies and goals are all aligned and of stepping up should some dark troubled mess come to light or in the event of a leadership transition. Boards are the bulwark in good times and in bad.

I will never minimize how much work and headache is involved in serving on a board, if you’re doing it with heart and commitment and not just treating it as an excuse to travel a few times a year. But I cannot emphasize enough what a huge honor it really is, how much pride I still feel to have served in such a critical leadership role, especially for a mission I believe in so strongly. If you are ever lucky enough to be asked to join a board for something you believe in, I would not hesitate to say: Go for it. And I would also say: Don’t just bask in the credential. Do the work.

For more information on nonprofit boards: check out BoardSource. Real experts, unlike me.