“Alice, I’m at the airport heading to Chicago to my first board meeting. What do I need to know?” asked my friend Paul last week. Paul’s a successful Wall Street executive, 42, who recently joined the national board of a major nonprofit. I knew that Paul had already participated in a board orientation. And we had discussed his board service a couple of times. This call was for last minute pointers.
“Oh, and one more thing,” asked Paul. “They want me to serve on three committees. What should I do?” I knew that three committees were more than Paul had time for. I also knew that Paul would take his commitments seriously.
“Also, can I ask questions in the meeting?” Paul asked. He’s super smart, has excellent judgment, and is no stranger to high level strategy meetings. This was going to be an all day board meeting for an organization with a complex business model. The nonprofit facilitates small business start-ups and trains and counsels entrepreneurs for success in urban communities that have been hard hit by the recession.
Here were my nine recommendations to my friend as he headed off to his first board meeting:
- Read your board packet if you haven’t already. Reason: You want to be well prepared, note where you have questions or suggestions, and think about how you might add value to the board and organization. Use your judgment during the meeting whether it’s appropriate to comment then, or later in private to the CEO and/or chair.
- Make certain you understand the organization’s business model and the financials. If you don’t, schedule another time with the CEO outside of the board meeting to address your questions. Reason: If you know the key sources of revenue (government; fees for services; philanthropy–individuals, foundations, corporations), then you know whom the organization is appealing to for support (government officials and legislators; direct consumers like students or trainees; or donors). Also, find out the various cases for support, and where the challenges and opportunities are going forward. Consider where you can add value through your networks and relationship or certain skills sets–perhaps with the broader business model, not only the revenue sources.
- Mostly listen in your first board meeting. But if you have a question or comments, yes, go ahead. Reason: In your first board meeting, there will be a lot to learn. But you’re smart and have good judgment, and you’ve been elected to the board because you bring value. If you have something to ask or say that you feel is relevant, and not something that you should be discussing with the CEO off-line, go ahead.
- Observe the board dynamics. Note the board chair and CEO relationship; and who’s influential and who’s respected. Reason: In order for you to have an impact, you need to understand whose support you’ll need.
- Get a sense if the CEO and the board have a vision of where they are taking the organization. Hopefully, they have a sense of the organization’s greater potential and a plan to achieve success. Reason: If you know where they are on the path, and where the barriers and opportunities are, you can start to figure out how you can be useful. If there is no vision, that’s a question you might raise at the right time and in the right way, perhaps with some discussion with the CEO and board chair in advance.
- Try to determine how the organization measures and reports on the success of its core porgrams. If such outcome measurement models are not in place, see how you or business people you know might be able to bring this expertise in. Reason: Having valid and relevant reports for the board is essential for planning purposes, vital to share with funders to gain their support, and valuable in communications with the community.
- Get to know people and allow them to get to know you. Reason: This is your opportunity to build relationships so that you can be an effective board member. Additionally, board members can potentially become business relationships.
- Regarding committees: Review the committee descriptions; have a conversation with the board chair and/or CEO to consider where you can add value, and where the organization needs you most. Start with one or two committees. Reason: Nonprofits will treasure your expertise and ask you for more and more. You need to sort it out, decide what you can do well, and where you want to draw the line. Otherwise, you might burn out, and that serves no one’s purposes.
- Always, always remember the mission … the reason you joined this board. Say the mission to yourself as you head into every meeting and as you consider every decision and vote. Reason: Actually, there is a legal “Duty of Obedience” to the mission. But, perhaps more meaningfully, you chose to devote your personal time and money, and perhaps share your personal networks to this board and organization because you wanted to do something good for the world. This is your opportunity.
“And most of all,” I said to Paul, “Have fun!”