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Board Roles & Expectations

Legal Counsel for Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector

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Board Roles & Expectations


This article, by Ken Hoffman, originally appeared in Third Sector on October 29, 1998.

We know who they are and we all want them on our charity's board of trustees. They are the great and the good, whose names are recognizable to all. Heads turn; doors open. But what, exactly, should a trustee's role be? It is changing in America, rapidly.

In a mature charity, the board hires a chief who hires a staff to do the job. You don't need board members to provide detailed knowledge of the field. You certainly don't want them to substitute their judgment for the staff's. Yet if you were to ask, I predict most board members would claim that their chief role is to guide a charity's programming. Their second task might be seeing that administration is sound. And finally, a board member might concede some need for 'resources', hoping that the staff will take care of it.

The true priority is the reverse. The first and greatest - some of my clients say the only - duty from a board member is to help with funding and its cousin, external relations. A board member must be willing to serve as a personal representative of the charity. Then, help achieve board-approved fundraising targets through personal giving, commensurate with personal financial resources. It sounds a simple thing, but how many charities really achieve 100 per cent participation from their board in every fund raising drive?

The second sphere of board responsibility is for governance. A board must oversee the fiscal integrity of the charity's use of funds.

And, yes, I suppose a board even needs, just a little, to be responsible for the charity's programme - considering proposed major changes and advising staff on specific areas.

How do you get started, without watching your entire board resign en masse? One of the best tools is a job description for board members. Nothing frightening, just a page or two. The surprise is that your nominating committee (you do have one, don't you?) will be glad to have the description. No more awkward moments at the end of the year with the chairman mumbling, 'Well, Frank, I know we said we'd never ask you for money, but I wonder if you would consider ...'

If you bring people on to your board with a clear view of why they are needed and what is expected from them, you are far more likely to get what you need. Of course, sympathy for the cause is essential and prior experience in the field is no disqualification. But the 'three w's' for board members still obtain: wealth, work and wisdom.

The years ahead suggest more private philanthropy and fewer public funds. A strong board will be essential to attract private wealth in this increasingly competitive atmosphere.

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