Board members are the organization’s biggest advocates. They are responsible for raising funds, governance, strategic planning, and financial oversight. To perform these responsibilities successfully, they need to understand, articulate, and be committed to the organization’s mission, the clients served, and the social change they are working towards.
Yet, many board members do not have a background in philanthropy and their daily work is far removed from the clients served. Clearly participating in board meetings is not enough. How does the agency build board members connected to the mission?
Creating opportunities for board members to see, hear, and connect to the mission is another reason why it is important to begin molding board members as volunteers. The volunteer development plan should include diverse opportunities for emerging leaders to connect directly with clients. Once leaders become board members, the goal is to build on these connections.
This type of grounding can be brought to the board in what is often referred to as “mission moments.” During these conversations, clients are invited to board meetings to tell their story. But, asking clients to come to board meetings places an added burden on them. Additionally, it is not easy for clients to tell their stories to strangers.
Since program staff are responsible for daily program management and working with clients directly, they could bring these stories to the board. Unfortunately, this once removed experience is rarely strong enough. To make it genuine, the board member needs to see it first hand and transform it into their story by integrating their own experience and using their own words.
A better option is to offer volunteer opportunities before board meetings and to assign responsibilities to board members. By asking board members to participate, they are more likely to arrive on time and take it seriously. Once they have completed their duties, build in a short time for them to digest the experience and ask questions.
Another opportunity is to invite former clients to serve on the board. These board members know the challenges first hand and appreciate the hardships clients endure. These leaders also understand the importance of the services provided and how they can transform lives. Their presence is a strong reminder of the importance of the organization. Fellow board members look to them for direction and insight. Additionally, board members are reminded that the clients served are people with dreams and shortcomings no different than their own.
Board members are an essential part of a nonprofit’s capacity. Yet many missions and bylaws limit who can become a board member. We will explore the benefits and challenges of grassroots membership organizations in the next post.