Core board competency 10: The willingness to set aside personal agendas for the greater good of the nonprofit and the community that it serves.
The key word in this final competency is "personal."
Nonprofit board members have the collective responsibility to define, protect, and advance their mission. It's the ultimate board agenda: everything they do must feed that larger purpose. By extension, anything that stands between members and their ability to focus exclusively on that mission must be set aside. That includes any personal goals - "agendas" - that may divert attention and loyalty from the good of the greater cause that board members are called to serve.
I've often said - here and elsewhere - that commitment to mission must be the bottom line in board recruitment. If a prospective board member is not personally committed to the mission of the organization, the individual and nonprofit need to agree to move on.
Pure altruism is almost impossible to achieve and live, though. We all have personal interests, experiences and worldviews that inevitably color what we bring into the boardroom. Those unique perspectives can be an asset, and they may be the reason we were asked to serve in the first place. It's okay to bring them to discussions and to help inform the board's collective thinking about the issue at hand.
What is not okay is purposefully using our status and our votes as board members to advance projects and priorities that may be personally beneficial but not in the best interest of the organization.
All boards have a legal bottom line that sets parameters for ensuring that this does not happen: the duties of care, loyalty and obedience. We are individually accountable for personally living up to these standards, and for ensuring that the board as a whole upholds them.
The duty of care calls us to perform our governance duties in good faith, with the same care that an "ordinary person" would take in the same circumstances. You're approaching board service seriously, devoting the time and resources needed to oversee organizational affairs thoughtfully. It's a significant commitment that we make as individuals.
The duty of loyalty most directly addresses the "agenda" question. It calls on us to act in the agency's best interests at all times - setting aside personal interests, including loyalties to other groups or organizations; and avoiding real or perceived conflicts of interest. When you enter the nonprofit boardroom, you shed everything else and focus solely on what is good and right for that organization. Period.
The duty of obedience requires that we follow all local, state, and federal laws. It requires us to follow organizational bylaws and policies. It also compels us to put our mission above everything else.
What are the potential conflicts of interest in your boardroom? What are the perceived conflicts of interest? Has the board identified them as a group? Does the board have a conflict of interest policy that defines how it will raise and deal with them if/when they arise? These questions go beyond following the letter of the law and avoiding PR nightmares. They also call on us to create a culture of transparency that drives members to be their ethical best and the mission stewards that our organizations and our communities deserve.
Expanding our personal networks in collaborations is one legitimate motivation for board service. Getting to meet, and work with, new groups of community leaders who share our interests is a natural outcome and one okay reason to accept an invitation. We give so much, so freely. It is unreasonable to expect that board members experience no personal benefit in their service. Those benefits cannot distract us from our real work, though.
We may have personal interest - even deep interest - in a specific way of fulfilling our organization's mission. But if we are unwilling to see, or work toward, anything but that specific version of the future, we have a problem.