Newly elected nonprofit board member seeks help
April 13, 2016 7:38 AM   Subscribe

Elected to the board of a nonprofit, inexperienced, want to get off to a good start. Help?

I have been a member of my professional association since I started work in my field 12 years ago. Said profession consists mainly of freelancers working remotely, and has two professional associations in my country. There were several vacancies on the Board this time round, so I stood for election, and was elected to one of the posts. My period of office begins in May.

Now I'm wondering what I've let myself in for. The current Board seem to be doing a pretty good job and I'm happy to be joining that team. They do, however, seemingly face an onslaught from disgruntled members on public online forums and at General Meetings. I am woefully inexperienced in all types of politics, having been a solitary freelancer for most of my career, so feel very unprepared to tackle this.

I understand the legal status of a Board member; I'll be a director of the company, with joint legal responsibility for how it performs, with a strategic rather than executive role. I'd be grateful for any general advice about how to be a good nonprofit board member, how to develop a thicker skin when members criticise what the Board does (the Board itself consists almost entirely of members, but there seems to be a very Them and Us attitude on the part of some members).

Apologies for vagueness but this reflects the confused (and naive) nature of my thoughts on the subject! I wasn't expecting to get elected and will be the least experienced Board member by quite a long way.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Find a mentor - either on or off the board. Somebody who's been on several boards and seems to you to have a style you admire. Governance issues are certainly something you can learn in a book but board leadership is an art.

Listen a lot, especially at the start - not just to your fellow board members, but to those comments at AGMs and on forums. Ask questions of your fellow professionals who are off the board. Boards that are getting torched at their AGMs are likely not listening enough to outside perspectives and you have the opportunity to change that.

Also - see if the organization has a budget for board development. If not - advocate for one. Good organizations pay to make their governors better at governing.
posted by scrittore at 7:50 AM on April 13, 2016

Do you have a specific position (such as Secretary or the chairman of a committee) or are you a Member At-Large (you are a voting Board member without more responsibility? I'd guess from you saying it's more of a strategic role that you're probably a Member At-Large?

Ask questions during Board meetings. It'll help make you better informed and understand what it is you will be voting on. You then have all the information for any criticisms from outside the Board.

Read everything they send you before hand. That includes old Minutes, proposals, reports, everything. This will make you more informed for the upcoming meeting so you can actually participate in the discussion process instead of playing catch-up in the meeting.

Become relatively familiar with the parliamentary procedure your Board uses. Most USA-based Boards use some form of Robert's Rules of Order. You don't need to know all the intricacies (unless you're chairing the meeting or your role is to be the Parliamentarian), but have a general understanding so you know what's going on and when it is the appropriate time to do/say something.

Serving on a Board can be a very rewarding experience. Best of luck!
posted by Deflagro at 8:19 AM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've sat on a couple nonprofit boards, and my biggest advice beyond scrittore's great suggestions, is to listen and follow up in a timely manner.

A lot of times, members just want to know they've been heard. There are situations when there's nothing you can do (bylaws, local laws, jurisdiction), but being heard is huge. And if that's the case, ask what they recommend/suggest. Working with local government through two nonprofit boards, I quickly learned that my complaints were better received when I proposed a solution or direction. I tried to translate this to our membership, and when we had someone complaining about something, I'd ask what they proposed. Sometimes, it made them reconsider their complaints; other times, they'd step back and actually start thinking through a solution. Or, I'd ask if they could volunteer to lead the effort to do x, y, or z, with the board's support. We were a completely volunteer-led, volunteer-driven board, so our resources were very limited.
posted by writermcwriterson at 8:27 AM on April 13, 2016

Accept that you cannot please everyone. Understand that the way that many members will provide any sort of input will be negative in tone. It is simply emotionally easier and more satisfying to complain than to provide constructive feedback, so that's what most will do. It's up to you to listen a lot (and let them know you're listening), and to try and distill from any negative comments what it actually is the membership would like.

Second: I assume you do not think that everything is 100% perfect with the organization (there is always room for improvement). What were your complaints or frustrations as a member? Take a look at the criticism coming from members and see where you have common ground. As a new board member it can sometimes be better to pick one small pet cause to advocate for. Initially, give yourself permission to softly "ignore" a large chunk of the issues the board must deal with (i.e. pay attention and contribute of course, but defer to the more experienced board members). But use your pet cause to learn how to navigate the Board and go about creating change, from the initial idea to a final outcome. Get advice and allies along the way. If you're able to advance change in one small focused area, both fellow board members and members will be impressed.
posted by Kabanos at 8:39 AM on April 13, 2016

Normally, I am not a fan of the "ignore the haters" approach, but you will have to accept that there will be a significant group of your members which is incurably disgruntled and will pick apart anything you do. That does not mean that people won't bring you legitimate issues, but you have to accept that the occasional wave of nastiness is effectively structural and inevitable. In general, the criticisms you feel most defensive about are probably the ones that need the most careful consideration, but the existence of the knee-jerk constituency means you can't escape criticism no matter how perfect you are. Learning to deal with that criticism is actually part of the contribution you are making to the organization and its members.
posted by praemunire at 9:48 AM on April 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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