If you’ve served on a nonprofit board, you’ve probably seen – or at least heard of – the “10 Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards.” If you’ve read this blog for more than a month or two, you probably also know that I’m not the biggest fan of that list.
It’s not that the tasks it covers aren’t important governance roles. Rather, when I read that list, I see very little that actually excites and motivates board members to serve. I also see some gaps that trouble me. A few years ago, I added four roles that I believe address both issues. I talk about them at the end of this video overview of board member responsibilities, but I realized recently that I have never written about them, here or elsewhere.
It’s not that the big 10 don’t cover aspects of a couple of my added roles. But they miss articulating the broader responsibilities that exist in governance - the roles that make nonprofit governance a meaningful leadership opportunity.
My expanded roles list includes not only the BoardSource 10 but also these four:
Steward – The steward ensures the appropriate use of all agency resources. He/she understands and embraces the board’s accountability to all stakeholders, not just the bottom-line reporting required of the IRS, funders and others that expect things to be counted. Accountability to me also means holding sacred the need for thoughtfulness in all deliberations – not taking them lightly, researching carefully, and making the best decisions possible with the broadest knowledge base available.
Leader – The board’s leadership role begins, and ultimately ends, with defining and advancing the nonprofit’s vision and mission. They must be willing to ask the tough questions, inside and outside of the organization, to identify and address the opportunities to move the mission forward and the key challenges to doing so. In this role, the board moves forward with confidence on the work that they take on in meetings and in the priorities to which they attend. They embrace their ultimate leadership role and all that involves, not serving as a rubber stamp for the executive director but recognizing the board’s partnership with the CEO as the organization’s leadership team.
Ambassador – Board members’ status as community leaders, and their willingness to reach out to peer and stakeholder groups on behalf of the organization, are unique contributions that should not only be valued but expected of board members. (For a fantastic overview of this aspect of board service, read Paul Vandeventer’s Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Increasing Civic Reach.”) Board members have a special responsibility to speak up – and out – on issues impacting the organization and its mission. While others have similar opportunities and should be encouraged to do the same, board members as community leaders have a different kind of credibility with many stakeholder groups. Not encouraging and supporting them in fulfilling this role is a major mistake.
Visionary - This may be the most important – and least enacted – board role: creating, articulating and advancing the organization’s vision of a better community/world. This means regularly spending quality time envisioning what that better community/world looks like, toward what ends, and integrating that into governance work. Boards should be perpetually looking toward – and beyond – the horizon, even as they attend to work firmly grounded in the realities of today. Without this visionary role, the board will be forever stuck in the day-to-day, where nothing changes and never gets better. Tending to this role enables and empowers the board to stay focused on the unique – and usually non-urgent – responsibilities of governance. It’s both too easy and too costly to ignore.
I welcome your reaction to my additions. Do they truly add anything of value to how we define governance?