The Role of the Board: What Board members should be thinking and doing

Last week, I wrote on how staff should be working to support the efforts of their nonprofit board members.  A few days later I received a comment from a reader encouraging me to write about the board members’ responsibilities.  Over the years, I have kept a list of board member responsibilities that I have used during training sessions and board retreats, and I’ve allowed board members to offer comments and suggestions to edit, revise, and clarify their roles.  Here are several points from that document for your review and comment:

First, I believe boards have two functions: one, to “guard the mission” of the organization; and two, to hire, advise, and if necessary, replace the executive director (or CEO).

Roles for Boards to “Guard the Mission”:

  • Provide leadership to and approve a strategic plan for the organization
  • Assure that programming and financial allocations are focused on fulfilling the mission (guarding against “mission creep”)
  • Assure that proper financial stewardship is maintained
  • Contribute financially to the organization according to your means
  • Advocate for the organization to secure community and financial support
  • Open doors for staff who are seeking support from others
  • Continue to expand your knowledge of the community needs that the mission of the organization is addressing, and your knowledge of best practices to meet those needs
  • Participate in board meetings, demanding quality presentations from staff, and providing equal quality on your part during board and committee discussions
  • Offer your talents and time to serve on committees and/or as a committee chair or officer; when accepting an assignment, fulfill it to the best of your ability

Roles for Boards to “Hire, Advise and/or Replace” the Executive Director:

  • Annually set expectation goals for the executive staff leader that parallel and/or complement the goals in the strategic plan
  • Annually evaluate the executive staff leader on his/her performance toward fulfilling their goals and the organization’s strategic plan
  • Be available to offer expertise and counsel to the executive staff leader when called upon to do so
  • Hold executive sessions of the board that include the executive staff leader, and some sessions that do not include the executive staff leader, to discuss strategic direction of the organization and operational issues that need to be addressed by the board
  • Develop a succession plan that has both emergency implementation guidelines as well as strategic implementation for retirements and natural transitions
  • Hold the executive staff leader accountable for results, and when results are not consistently met, replace the executive staff leader

Recently I was conducting a board retreat and as we were discussing board roles and responsibilities, two comments from board members present were quite memorable.  First, as a board member, you are part of a team – so be a good teammate and team player.  Second, a board member should be willing to accept any role, including board chair, without aspiring to have that role.  The second quality speaks to servant leadership and the importance it has for the success of a quality board and a quality organization.

So what have been your experiences and observations, and what else do you know about board roles and responsibilities?  I look forward to your comments and insights.

All the best and happy holidays,


2 thoughts on “The Role of the Board: What Board members should be thinking and doing

  1. Jane Kuechle says:

    Tom, a very good and concise list. Where would you place trust in the Executive Director in this list? I recognize that there are times that a board must step in when operational issues are not being addressed or resolved, but there is also the danger of a board or individual board members being too engaged in the processes that carry out the strategic plan. It can set up confrontational situations that are not helpful. Board members have some responsibility to trust in their own judgement when they’ve hired someone to manage and lead the organization and that trust must allow that person to carry out the mission, vision, and direction of the organization in a manner that he/she finds most productive.

  2. Jane, your question is a valid one because trust is crucial to many aspects of the not-for-profit world. Communication builds trust, so the Executive Director needs to begin “building” as soon as he/she begins the staff leadership role through active communication with board officers, board members and the board as a whole. And you are right, that if the board trusts the staff leadership of the Executive Director, they will refrain from stepping into the role of management. If they do not “trust” that individual, that is when problems will begin. Thanks for your additional insights on this. Tom

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