Little surprises me anymore, but hearing about a nonprofit board being asleep at the wheel still does. I’ve heard of two such cases in the last few months and it makes me shake my head in disbelief. Such board behavior can be disruptive and sometimes even catastrophic. So I am here to state the obvious: the first responsibility of a nonprofit board member—any board member of any nonprofit– is to STAY AWAKE and PAY ATTENTION!
Here are three fundamental behaviors in which every board member should engage to ensure at least a minimal amount of attentiveness:
- Attend the meetings! A wise person once told me that people, even the most “important” and busiest people, make time for what they want to make time for. If you are not serious enough about your commitment to an organization to attend the meetings—drop off the board. If you must miss a meeting, make sure you find out what happened by a quick phone call to the Executive Director or another board member whose judgment you trust who did attend.
- Read the minutes carefully and critically! The minutes are the formal record of board actions. They go to auditors and your name, among others, stands behind them. If you need clarification, ask for it before voting to approve the minutes. I know that many people think “minutes-shminutes”—who needs them. I maintain that good, very succinct minutes are an extremely important communications tool and help everyone involved in an organization stay in step. They also provide an easy way to hold board and staff accountable for actions and timelines agreed to by the board.
- Read the financial statements carefully and critically! It doesn’t matter how much you trust your Executive Director. Each and every board member is responsible for providing fiscal oversight and accountability. If you don’t understand the financial reports, go to lunch with the board treasurer, the accountant, and/or the Executive Director and walk through the statements together until you understand them. Make sure that you see audited statements when they are due, and make sure you get a copy of the auditor’s management letter.
There is a lot that Executive Directors and Board Chairs can do to help board members pay attention. Stay tuned for more on that later.