Guest blogger Joe Stewart is Executive Director of the NC FreeEnterprise Foundation and currently serves as Board ViceChair with The Hope Center, a non-profit that works with young people exiting the foster care system in Wake County (www.hopecenteratpullen.org).
I love serving on non-profit boards, but honestly it’s equal parts noble act and self-serving indulgence. Giving back is a tenet of my faith and public service is a habit encouraged by my parents. Helping, as a volunteer board member, an organization serve the community where I live is the most effective way to honor those values. And, having spent the better part of my adult life working in and around politics, I have come to the conclusion that the virtue of serving on a non-profit board is about the only chance I have of getting into Heaven!
I have developed three aspirations that I make a sincere and deliberative effort to achieve during my tour of duty on a non-profit board – I think of them in terms of memorable lines from books I loved as a child.
1) When serving on a non-profit board I try and remember that; “George was a good little monkey and always very curious.” (Curious George, by H.Rey)
Board members have serious fiduciary and governance responsibilities (and as good little monkeys must provide sound oversight of the organization’s finances and operations), but they must also provide strategic vision that leads to a sustainable way of achieving the mission going forward. Accomplishing this requires a willingness to be, like George, curious.
Being on a board is, in part, being a ‘reasonable skeptic’. Not antagonizing by simply naysaying, but rather openly, honestly, and objectively asking questions like:
‘Are we doing this in the way that provides the highest ROI?’
‘Do we have all the objective data we need to make an informed decision?’
‘We’ve always done it this way’ does need to be countered with ‘are we sure this is the best way?’ Sometimes the current way is indeed the best way, but getting to that conclusion necessitates rolling it around in our heads a little bit first. I recall something my father used to tell me that I think is important to remember when serving on a non-profit board: It doesn’t matter as much if you’re inside or outside the box, but rather that you’re thinking at all.
2) It’s important to uphold the notion that; “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” (Horton Hears A Who, by Dr. Seuss)
Board discussions need to be inclusive of everyone on the board. The trick is to ensure every board member abides by that principle. As a board member prone to active participation in the discussion, I know I must also support a board culture where all voices are being heard and valued.
I focus on being an advocate for sharing the talking stick equally among all. Prompting those who’ve been silent during the discussion to offer their insights on the subject is just as important as speaking your own mind. Fostering respectful, reasoned debate is essential to produce good board decisions.
3) Support moments where you can say to your fellow board members: “I DO like your party hat!” (Go Dog Go, by P.D. Eastman)
Non-profits are human institutions and thus, by definition, run by humans. Knowing and embracing the individuality of those humans promotes cohesiveness and collegiality. Board meetings are business meetings and should be conducted in a business-like manner, so it’s important to also carve out time apart from board meetings to get to know each other on a personal level. Consider this as part of your time commitment to the organization.
Working toward these three objectives, in my experience, has been a successful way to ensure the non-profit boards I serve on live happily ever after!
Joe Stewart is Executive Director of the NC FreeEnterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan non-profit business-oriented organization that does research and analysis on candidates, campaigns, voter attitudes and demographic changes that impact North Carolina’s political landscape. He is President-elect of the Board of the Association Executives of NC (www.aencnet.org), a professional association for association professionals.