Trend Lines: What it means to be a good volunteer board member

For almost 20 years, I’ve been consulting with not-for-profit organizations, their executive leaders and their boards of directors. Recently, I’ve been working with several dysfunctional volunteer boards, and it occurred to me that rarely do we think about what it means to be a good volunteer board member.

All too often, well-meaning people do really disruptive things and as a result, the organization suffers. Here are some dos and don’ts to think about if you are on a volunteer board of directors.

If you agree to serve, do make a commitment. Show up. Speak up. There’s nothing worse for the organization then having “face” board members -- those people with money or perceived influence who look good on paper but never show up to be involved with the organization.

Do understand the role of the board and the role of a board member. If the organization is an all-volunteer group, then know you need to be more active and involved in the operational side of the organization. Expect to do the work. If the organization has paid staff and executive leadership, know that the role of the board is to provide strategic direction and oversight -- otherwise stay out of the way. As a volunteer board member, know your boundaries and honor them at all times.

Do make sure the board has a strategic focus. The primary role of the board is to set direction for the organization and assure there is sound leadership. This means that board members don’t meddle in the operations of the organization.

Do build relationships with other board members. I’m always surprised when people think they can do good work without building any kind of personal relationships with other board members. Respect and the ability to deal effectively with conflict come from trust. Trust comes from having a strong relationship. Relationships take time and work.

Don’t build cliques and engage in gossip. Both of these activities do nothing to move the organization forward and only serve to be divisive. Any board with “in groups” is bound to be dysfunctional.

Don’t stay too long. While volunteer boards need stability and committed leadership, they also need change and innovation. Board members who continue to serve year after year tend to get stale and often tend to develop ownership of the way things function, becoming resistant to needed change. One key to becoming an effective board member is to know when to leave.

Serving on a volunteer board of directors is an important career development activity for most business people. It can be a thankless job or it can be a richly rewarding experience. The difference is strategic focus, clear role definition, building relationships and open communication.

An experienced business executive and organizational consultant, Jan Flynn teaches at the J. Whitney Bunting College of Business at Georgia College & State University.