Long ago, Benjamin Franklin observed, “When you’re good to others, you’re best to yourself.”
In my experience, that’s certainly true when it comes to serving on boards of organizations. At its best, serving on a board is a rewarding experience both for the trustee/board member and the institution that they serve. The board member shares their time and talents — and yes, in the non-profit world, board membership often also involves financial contributions — and they also gain valuable leadership and career-building experience.
But despite the benefits of serving on boards, many people have trouble getting started. When I ask them why, I hear questions like these: “How do I get on a Board? I just don’t know how.” and “How can I be sure that it will be a good thing for me and the organization?”
In this blog post, I’ll look at some important considerations for serving on a board.
If you’ve never served on a board before, the best advice I can give you is to be willing to start small — and start with an organization that you know, and knows you. And although there are opportunities in start-ups and small for-profit firms, you’re likely to have the most success in getting on a non-profit board. There are many worthy organizations out there hungry for professional board talent.
Some ideas you can explore: Is there a local charity doing great work in your community that you’ve helped out as a volunteer or with donations? Or perhaps your kids attend an independent school whose mission you want to help continue. Or you’ve worked at a college or university that you want to help succeed further.
For example, my involvement with New Jersey City University (NJCU) began as an Adjunct Professor in Finance & Economics. In the classroom, I learned how important it is that NJCU has the necessary resources to fulfill its mission of providing an excellent education to a diverse population of students. Now, I serve on NJCU’s Foundation Board as Vice Chairman.
Serving on a Board
There’s no shortage of guidance and advice available for serving on a board. Other than the fiduciary responsibilities associated with being on a board — which I’ll discuss in my next blog post — I think that if you follow a few simple guidelines, you’ll be an effective and successful trustee.
Most important: Remember that serving on a board isn’t your “day job.” You’re not there to provide day-to-day management for the organization. On the other hand, your focus can’t be so high level that you’re not making relevant contributions to the organization.
How to achieve this balance? What I’ve found to be most successful is a blend of oversight, insight, and foresight.
Oversight is knowing what the organization’s strategic plan is and the metrics it’s using to measure success relative to that plan. And, of course, the progress it’s making in achieving those goals. One way to think of this process is to ask to see the “dashboard” for the organization’s strategic plan or key projects. Sometimes, there may be too many metrics. In other cases, there could be too few. With the right dashboard, you (and your fellow board members) will be able to understand what’s actually going on.
Insight requires that you assess the organization’s viability, its ability to achieve its goals, based not on the skills and expertise of top-tier management, but on those of the team members just below them in the org chart. These will also be the people responsible for successfully completing important projects and initiatives. And remember — as a board member, it’s not your job to manage projects. It’s your job to make the project managers better project managers. You can help accomplish this by asking for succinct and informative presentations to the board and asking the right questions.
Another aspect of insight is fostering healthy disagreements at board meetings. If you and your fellow trustees never have differences of opinion, you can’t reach the conclusions that are best for the organization. Sometimes, the necessary formality of board meetings doesn’t encourage frank discussions. If you find that’s the case, you can try creating more informal opportunities for discussion. For example, in my work life, I had to report regularly to a group of mutual fund boards. The board president used the “cookie break” time to draw board members in and encourage more provocative questions and livelier discussions.
Finally, foresight means that you bring all of your experience to bear as a board member. This is the luxury you have as someone who sits outside of the organization, yet as part of it. This can be as simple as bringing your “business perspective” to matters the board considers or as complex as taking a 360-degree view of the environment the institution’s operating in.
Oversight, insight, foresight: They will not only make you a better board member, but they will also make you a better leader in your career, just as Ben Franklin said!
As mentioned, in my next blog post, I’ll discuss the fiduciary responsibility associated with being on a board. Yes, this is significant — but with sufficient insight, you’ll do just fine.
If you are interested in serving on a board and would like to discuss opportunities, Princeton Financial Consultants can help. Contact us for a personalized consultation today.
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