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Demystifying Board Service: Part 2

by Julia Jackson

You may have heard the saying “if you’ve seen one board you’ve seen one board,” but what exactly does that mean? Boards have the same responsibilities at the most fundamental level; however, I’ve seen first-hand in my work as a consultant and board member that boards can vary dramatically. These differences can have an impact on the experience you'll have and the work you'll do. 

In Demystifying Board Service Part I, I wrote about knowing what you want to give and get out of board service and how to match that with what a board needs. But to really ensure a great fit—one where you can make the best use of your time and talents─you have to understand the board’s composition and function.

Board Composition

Your board experience will be influenced by the mix of people on the board and their group dynamics. When looking at a board, consider asking about the following:

  1. Size: The number of members will impact the work of the board in a number of ways. It can influence the meeting dynamics and frequency, amount of work done in committees versus board meetings, communication between members and workload. While you shouldn’t make generalizations about a board solely on size, thinking about these issues can help you determine what’s important and what questions to ask. 
  2. Representation: Some boards are representational boards, meaning they have designated groups of people that must be members. This can be based on external mandates or the organization’s bylaws. For example, community action agencies are federally mandated to have equal representation of public officials, consumers and private community organizations on their board of directors. In these situations, board members can introduce factors that can influence board dynamics. 
  3. Diversity: Diversity on a board can mean a number of things, including: race, ethnicity, gender, age, generation, socio-economic status, education, sexuality, religion and other factors that influence an individual’s perspective and experience. How important is it for you to have board diversity? Is the board’s stance on diversity in alignment with your own? Are you comfortable working with people from diverse backgrounds? Are you willing to be the only young person on a board?

Board Functions

Not all boards spend their time in the same way or with the same priorities. By understanding some key areas of board work, you can ask questions to get a good idea of the board’s purpose and how you’ll be spending your time. 

  1. Oversight: Oversight is often the most straightforward function of a board. It can include things like ensuring compliance with all state and federal laws and evaluating the work of the executive director and board. Ask your potential board what policies, bylaws, committees and annual actions they have in place to ensure good oversight of the organization. 
  2. Fundraising: The board’s role in fundraising is one of the most controversial topics in the sector. While most can agree that the board has a part in fundraising for the organization, just what that role is can vary dramatically. Board members can do everything from making personal contributions to organizational fundraising oversight to having a development committee that plans individual giving campaigns. Ask your potential board what they will expect of you. 
  3. Setting Strategic Direction: One key function of the board is often strategic planning. Boards frequently set the direction for the organization by helping identify issues, goals and strategies. They also monitor, evaluate and adjust that direction, as changes in the organization or environment occurs. Make sure to ask if the organization has a strategic plan and how it is used and updated.  
  4. Networking: Boards also serve as networkers or boundary spanners who help connect the organization to potential donors, partners, constituents and supporters. This “public image" function can vary—everything from attending events to setting up meetings with interested individuals. Find out what sort of boundary spanning your potential board does and expects. 

At the end of the day, the board of directors will be providing leadership to the organization. By digging a little deeper you can find out what sort of leadership they provide, what kind of leadership they hope to provide and what leadership opportunities are available for you.

How have these factors influenced a board you’ve been on? What questions do you wish you had asked before you joined your board of directors? 

This is the second of a three part series. In June, I’ll explore how the organization (its size, sector, funding streams, etc.) impacts the work of the board.

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