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Mutual rewards: Thoughts on serving as a board member for a nonprofit organization

Minneapolis Fed President Gary Stern is a past or current member of the board of numerous nonprofit organizations. Here, he shares a few thoughts on the lessons of his service.

November 1, 2005


Mutual rewards: Thoughts on serving as a board member for a nonprofit organization

Minneapolis Fed President Gary Stern is a past or current member of the board of numerous nonprofit organizations, including the National Council on Economic Education, the Northwest Area Foundation, the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, Hamline University and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. As a special to Community Dividend, Stern shares a few thoughts on the lessons of his service.

Serving on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization can be a mutually rewarding experience. For a nonprofit operating in an environment of limited financial resources, the board provides an available pool of talent and expertise that might otherwise be out of reach. For the board member, the experience can be personally enriching and educational. It's an opportunity to learn about other perspectives and leadership styles while contributing to an organization's development.

I've had the privilege of serving on a number of different boards over the last 20 years. Although board structures and circumstances vary, a few themes seem constant from organization to organization. What follows are some reflections on those themes.

The objectives are the key. If you plan to serve on a board, be sure the organization's objectives are a good match for your own values and interests. If they're not, serving on that board won't be a good fit in the long run. You'll pass time there, but it's unlikely you'll make much of a contribution.

Strong internal leadership is crucial. I've served on lots of different boards and seen lots of different leadership styles, and there is no one approach that works. That said, it's crucial for the organization to have a strong, effective internal leader—in other words, a strong president or executive director, or whatever the title might be. A board can and should be helpful, but it can't substitute for an effective internal leader, regardless of that individual's style. For that reason, I think the most important thing a board can do is select and retain good senior leadership—and, when necessary, dismiss the leadership if the organization isn't being managed effectively.

Tranquility's fine, but transitions are better. If you serve on a board where everything seems to be running smoothly—that is, the leadership is strong and effective, the board functions well and the organization is making progress toward its objectives—then there's often not much to do but show up at the meetings and vote "yes."

Personally, I've found it more interesting and rewarding to serve on the boards of organizations that are going through some sort of transition. There's a fair amount of turbulence in the nonprofit world, and significant transitions happen. They provide opportunities to apply your skills and make real contributions to the organization. On the down side, transitions require more time and attention from board members, which can make it a challenge to balance board membership with other work. You just have to make sure the organization knows your full-time job comes first.

Size and diversity count. Boards vary in size; in general, I think small boards are preferable. On a large board with 20 or more people, the executive committee is usually the heart of the action, and other committees play a less important role. That can make it difficult for all members to contribute fully.

Boards also vary in their diversity objectives, and I think having a diverse board is helpful, for a number of reasons. If you have a diversity of backgrounds and expertise, people aren't likely to see the world in the same way. It creates healthy interaction, which can generate new ideas. It also provides an opportunity to play to different strengths. Board members can serve on the committees that best match their skills and expertise.

A diverse board can be especially important for a community-based nonprofit, because organizations tend to become a little insular over time. If most of the board members are insiders, or people who are already involved in and knowledgeable about the community, then it's good to bring in a couple of outsiders. By outsiders,I'm not necessarily referring to geography; I mean people with different backgrounds and perspectives who have the connections to know when something big and important is happening elsewhere.

If you want to contribute, don't hesitate to approach the organization. Boards typically recruit their members, and the process can seem closed-off to an observer. However, that shouldn't stop an individual who has an interest in a particular organization or cause from getting involved. If you contact a senior staff person or board member of a nonprofit, you'll often find that the organization will welcome your help. You might not end up as a board member right away, but lots of good things come from small beginnings. Nonprofits recognize that people who are committed to the organizations' objectives will find ways to make important contributions.