Serve Don't Sit

Last week my colleague, Leslie wrote a great post on how to carefully weigh an invitation to join a non-profit board. I would like to journey a bit further down that path to the moment you have decided to say yes.

So, you have chosen to serve on a non-profit board. Please notice I said serve. My friend and mentor, Judy Bright taught me many years ago that you serve on a board. You NEVER sit on a board. Sounds uncomfortable!

Clearly to sit infers inactivity and board membership requires just the opposite. It requires authentic engagement. If you are not willing to serve the organization you have committed to govern and represent, you are wasting your time at board meetings and your organization’s resources.

What does serve mean? At a minimum, it means attending board orientation, reading materials and reports sent in advance of the meetings, regularly attending the meetings as an active participant not a phone worshipper, and making a financial investment in the organization.

At its best, serving means connecting with the mission and making the time to experience the mission in action—at least annually (more often if you can). The most important role of a board member is to share the story of your organization. You cannot be an effective storyteller if you have not experienced the impact of the organization with your eyes, ears, and your heart.

Once you own the story, you have to share it. The most effective board members are willing to leverage their personal and professional networks for the organization. I am not suggesting that you have to be willing to solicit every member of your network on behalf of the organization. However, you should be passionate enough about the organization’s mission to think about who else in your network might share your passion if they only knew more.

For example, my husband is a long-time volunteer in the YMCA’s We Build People Campaign. As a banker, he knows a lot of business leaders in the community. He doesn’t ask every client to support the Y, but he does share his passion for the Y’s programs with others who have a family focus in their businesses. Some of them chose to join the campaign and some do not, but they appreciate Jeff’s commitment to building a strong community as expressed through his passion for the Y’s mission. It’s a win win.

And please know, that leveraging your network isn’t all about asking folks for money. In fact, at its best, it truly is about sharing the story of your organization. If you can share the story in an inspiring and compelling way, the financial investment will simply be a bi-product.

The most effective board members also apply their own skill set and expertise to the organization. If you have a financial background, be willing to recommend potential audit partners or serve on the audit selection committee. If you are copy editor, be willing to edit key publications or solicitations.

I often hear board members say, “I look at numbers all day in my job. I would rather focus on marketing or programs in my board service.” Of course this is understandable, and it is fine to serve in another area that is interesting and hopefully rewarding to you. However, be very clear about your feelings when you are being recruited. The organization is likely pursuing your service because of your expertise. If you do not want to share that, let them know. Communication is the key to effective board service—both from the members and the organization.

Finally, service means investment. Yes, investment of time and ideas, but also the investment of dollars. Every individual has a unique financial position. However, every board member should be asked to make the organization one of his top three philanthropic priorities during his time of service. If you cannot make it a top priority, ask yourself why? Maybe you are not really that passionate about the mission.

Sometimes I hear board members say, “I would love to give more, but my husband is not in agreement.” If you cannot convince your spouse of your passion for the organization, you will likely have a hard time convincing anyone else. In fact, you should discuss the financial commitment of board service with your spouse BEFORE you agree to serve—even if you feel compelled to serve out of professional responsibility as opposed to personal interest. At its best, board members financially support their organizations both personally and through their employers if applicable. Again, you may have a hard time convincing your employer to give if you haven’t invested yourself.

Board service is serious business. Almost anyone can sit, but I don’t recommend sitting on a board. As I said before, it is uncomfortable for you and the organization.

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