Tales from the Trenches: How to Balance the Roles of Your Board of Directors

In my other life, I serve as the Executive Director of a volunteer-run nonprofit that is focused on youth leadership development. Soon though, my term as Executive Director will be coming to an end and our board of directors selected my successor, who will be vacating her seat on the board of directors.

With the open seat, the board of directors charged a group to come up with ideas for potential replacements. During the discussion, the nominating committee had a good-spirited debate about the role of the board of directors. One point of view wanted the new person to be active in the day-to-day operations, while the opposite side favored someone who was not as active, but may have been previously.

Both sides brought forth good arguments to support their side, and the discussion was productive and helped us better understand the direction we wanted the board of directors to go. Here are some of the points we debated and considered while examining the two different types of board members: those who are active in the day-to-day operations and those who are not.

Active Involvement:

The Board Members are Known by a Large Portion of the Organization

Often the board of directors can come off as a mysterious people who operate behind the curtain. However, if your board members are known by a majority of the members in your organization, it can make your board of directors appear more approachable. Having a strong tie between what your board of directors does and the day-to-day can decrease the disconnect and make your organization more cohesive.

They Know What’s Going On Day-to-Day

The board member can bring an active knowledge in what is going on in your day-to-day life. This can make sure the activities of your board match up with what the organization is doing short-term, and vice versa. The potential director is involved at the ground level and knows the issues that affect the core of the organization and can also work to address these issues.

Reward Active Members

Elevating someone to a seat on your board of directors can provide someone that is heavily involved in the mission of your organization with the opportunity to contribute in other ways. If they are willing to put the time in to make sure events and projects are successful, then they will likely put the necessary effort to their time on the board. Plus, if you choose the correct person, it can provide the right spark for future large leadership roles.

Inactive Board Members

Added Perspective

When your board is involved in the day-to-day activities of your organization, it can be easy for them to get bogged down in the details. If they don’t have to worry about these things and focus solely on their job to guide the business decisions, they can focus on the bottom line and make sure the organization is on the correct long-term path.

Evaluate Business Items More Clearly

The separation increases the board’s independence from management which can lead to better monitoring and oversight. Too much intermingling of the board and the organization can actually create a conflict of interest when having to deal with day-to-day activities such as hiring, determining compensating, and replacing as necessary. If they don’t have to worry about making decisions about the people they work along side, then they will be more effective as a board member.

Roles Can Be Duplicative

Often, the Executive Director serves on a board of directors. This person can provide updates from the ground level as well as ongoing operations and projects. If your Executive Director is already a board member, then adding another person who is heavily involved does not add the desired perspective from the position.

So which route did our NPO decide to go with? We steered more toward an older, more established person, who was not heavily involved in the day-to-day actions. The key deciding point for us was the last point above. Because our Executive Director and several other volunteer and programming coordinators are on the Board of Directors, we thought it would be better to add a person with a different perspective that could focus more on the long-term decisions.

While that was our decision, your organization might arrive at a different one. It depends on the charge of your board, how your board is structured and the immediate needs of your nonprofit. When deciding who you want on your board of directors, consider the role you want them to play and who they should be representing. Once you figure out what role you want the board of director member to play, then you can go out and find the perfect fit for your nonprofit.


Lincoln Arneal

Lincoln Arneal was a Senior Editor at Nonprofit Hub who brought loads of real-world nonprofit experience to the team. He was the past executive director of a nonprofit that provided leadership development to junior high and high school students. He looked to bring the insights from his time forming, developing, and running a nonprofit to help others in their quest to do good. Lincoln also had a legal background and had written for various newspapers (covering high school sports) for the past 15 years. He could be followed on Twitter at @NPLNK.

July 21, 2014

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