10 Truths Every Board Member Should Know

by Joan Garry

If your board is struggling to be as effective as you want, make sure to watch my free workshop, "How to Overcome a Dysfunctional Board". There are multiple times available in the coming days.

Let’s say you’ve just joined a nonprofit board. You’re flattered. You really love the work the organization does. You have a general sense of the role of a board member – something about ‘governance’ and yes, you probably heard the word “fundraising.”

But you’re also thinking to yourself: I bet I don’t know half of what being a new board member entails. Or even, what did I get myself into?

And now let’s say your organization has a harried Executive Director (this may be redundant) who really should have put together a strong board orientation but there just wasn’t time. And maybe the board members who recruited you soft-peddled fundraising or time commitment or all of the above.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Today I’d like to share a list of things I wish I could tell every new board member and every old board member.

But first I just want to say that if you do it well, it will be…

  • More work than you anticipated
  • More responsibility that you may have understood
  • A bit more frustrating that you considered

But most importantly, it will be a rewarding joy and privilege of the highest order.

So with no further ado here are the 10 things I think every new board member should know and understand.


1) Board service is a job.

It’s not an ‘oh, by the way’ kinda thing – it’s a serious commitment. But please don’t let this scare you away. The payoff can be big and way better than any office presentation you have ever given.

2) Your voice is as valuable at your first meeting as it is at your last.

I’ve been on boards and heard new board members say the most powerful things AFTER their first board meeting. That’s frustrating. New voices and new perspectives are critical (and part of why I advocate for term limits.)

3) You deserve a very good orientation.

If you have one, your voice will be even more powerful from Day 1. If you don’t get one, raise your hand to work with colleagues and staff to develop one.

Here’s a template for a great board orientation.

4) The board is NOT an appendage to the organization.

The game here is not “follow the leader.” Think “partnership” and it will lead you to ask great questions and generate great ideas. It will make the board active and not passive. Think about your organization like a twin-engine jet. The staff is one engine and the board is the other. This will help you think about your role with greater clarity.

5) You do NOT need to know rich people to be successful.

Allow me to bust one of the biggest myths out there. There are many ways you can be instrumental in raising money for the organization. As long as you are out there as a visible and vocal advocate, chatting up how proud you are to be a part of this amazing organization, you are reaching people who know people who know people. That’s how it works!

6) Your passion for the organization must be greater than your fear of asking

Passion is the #1 ingredient for successful board service. It’s also the ingredient to inviting people to know and do more for the organization.

7) If you miss two board meetings in a row, call your board chair

It’s a courtesy thing and it’s important too. I generally find that if someone misses a few consecutive board meetings, a conversation with the board chair can either re-engage you or lead you to realize this may not be for you. In fact, when I was at GLAAD, it was in our by-laws that if you missed two consecutive meetings, you were automatically off the board and you had to be voted back on.

8) You have power over staff – use it wisely and never abuse it.

Do not get me started on abuse of power. The number of stories I hear about bullying and abusive board members just gobsmacks me. So two things… if you are joining a board because it feels powerful, go be powerful somewhere else. And secondly and more importantly, please call it out if you see it.

9) You need to give a gift that Is one of the top 3 charitable gifts you make.

The number one phrase that will make you a successful fundraiser is this one: “Please join me …” You have zero credibility as a fundraiser if you are not giving yourself. And it should be one of the top 3 annual gifts you make. Lastly, foundations ask all the time (as they should): Does 100% of your board give? When the answer is no, it says something unflattering about your board and your organization.

10) PLEASE share rewarding stories of board service to folks “on the bench”.

This is my pet peeve. More folks should be on boards. I believe there are myths to be busted and that board service needs better public relations. Organizations are hungry for great board members – it may be the #1 thing I hear from nonprofit leaders. Please spread the good word.

Bonus Truth

You only need two good stories, two good facts, and a heaping dose of enthusiasm to be a five star ambassador for your organization. This is what will lead you to initiate a conversation at a barbeque. This is what will lead you to respond ASAP to an email from staff celebrating an organizational victory. This is what will lead you to stretch and give both time and treasure.

And this is what will lead you to feel a true sense of pride and accomplishment when you are celebrated for your accomplishments at your last board meeting.

So what else should every new board member understand? I had a lot more to say about this myself on a recent episode of my Nonprofits Are Messy podcast.

8 thoughts on “10 Truths Every Board Member Should Know”

  1. If there is a board development committee or a governance committee, I would think it should start there. If not, perhaps the executive committee. And if neither of those can or are willing to take it on, then I guess from the ED and staff. I am the chair of the board development committee at our non-profit, and we consider the orientation process an integral part of our committee work.

  2. I disagree with number 8, You have power over the staff – use it wisely and never abuse it.
    Board members do not have power over the staff. Board members cross a line when they undermine the authority of the chief executive. Board members have power over the chief executive not the staff.

  3. I have been asked to allow myself to be nominated to a board of a nonprofit that is in trouble, and I agreed. I know that I will be facing some challenging times ahead. I’m concerned about what I face, especially in relation to item 10–I WANT to make a difference most of all, and I HOPE it will ultimately be rewarding. However, I suspect the first year is going to be very difficult. Do you have suggestions for getting through the challenges to #10? (I have ordered your book and look forward to its arrival tomorrow!) Thanks!

  4. I’d love to see more on the nuts and bolts of making number 5 happen. I’m always telling my board this – they are so not getting it yet. My examples – of chatting in line at the store, with the lady cutting my hair, etc. aren’t making an impact on them.

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