“To find out what one is fitted to do, and to secure an opportunity to do it, is the key to happiness.” John Dewey
“Many organizations lose good people because they fail to teach them the rules.” Loretta Gutierrez Nestor
Serving on a board should be a joyous experience. Certainly, it’s hard work and you find yourself in difficult circumstances from time to time. But overall, your experience as a board member should be rewarding, fulfilling, interesting and even fun.
Even the difficult circumstances can contribute to the fulfillment. Because boards sit at the top of the organization, they hold legal authority and have ultimate accountability for the actions and results of the organization. Being at the top brings you complexity, complication and challenges. The routine, mundane, simple and easy things never find their way to your board. They get solved and treated at lower levels of the organization. The board never sees them. Issues that the board deals with are necessarily tough. That’s why they rise to the board level. Executive director performance, long-range strategy, niche and positioning, financial management, challenges to organizational reputation, program challenges—all these things are in the realm of the board, and they all can be difficult to deal with.
The fulfilling part comes in addressing these challenges well in a way that helps your organization move forward and also preserves key relationships. A well-functioning board treating key challenges is a joy that brings rewarding experiences.
How do you get the most from your board service?
- Clearly state your expectations for board service. What do you have to contribute to this board? Which skills, experience, knowledge and abilities have you amassed during your lifetime that you wish to bring to bear for the good of this organization? Professional services, such as accounting, marketing, legal or managerial certainly go into this category. So also do your network of contacts, program-related experience, event planning and a host of other valuable attributes.
- Discover the expectations that the organization has for you. Why has this organization approached you to serve on its board? Sometimes the organization hopes that you will bring certain skills and abilities, but never quite spells them out, leaving you to guess. Perhaps it’s better, when going through the recruiting process, to get direct information about the organizations expectations of you. If they want you to chair a committee or advance to board chair, it would be good to know that right up front.
- Decide how much is enough. At this step, you have enough information to judge whether this board is a fit for you. You already know that you have a passion for the mission and you have decided that the style and values of the organization are a fit for you. Now you decide whether you will get to do enough of the things you want to bring to the organization (your Step 1 list). If the board wants you primarily for your accounting prowess, but you want to spend your time in fund development, you have a decision to make. No job is perfect, board service included. So you need to decide how much is enough concerning the things you want to contribute and what the organization expects from you. If you get to do 30% accounting and 70% development, that might be okay.
- Get on the right committees. When you join the committee that deals with the issues you are most interested in, you have a good chance then of engaging in the activities you like (Step 1 list again).
- Make a board bucket list. After you have a bit of time with your organization, you will be able to identify how you can best make your contribution. Nobody lasts on a board forever (I hope your board has and abides by term limits). Make a list of things that you want to get done during your term. It might be to establish a board evaluation process, see a long-standing land protection project come to closure, establish a new financial sustainability strategy or get the books in order. Of course, these items should also be high priorities for the board as well, so that you don’t encounter unnecessary headwinds in your pursuits. Having a short few list items that you would be really proud to accomplish will help focus and direct your time on the board.
Leelanau Conservancy board member Dick Brandt once said, “If you ever get stretched to the point of being discouraged, pick up an annual plan and see how much you have done. If that doesn’t do it, walk through the village green, which was a dump of abandoned cars and watch the weddings happening there now and take time to smell the roses.”
His colleague on the board, Craig Miller, joined in. “It’s truly fun to be part of an organization that really makes a difference.”
Help the organization make a difference by aligning your expectations with the organization’s, pursuing your bucket list, and bringing your lifetime of experience to a cause about which you are passionate.