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Fertile Ground--Boards that Work

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Fertile Ground - Boards that Work by <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Ronald Arrington

<?xml:namespace prefix = v ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:vml" /><?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /><?xml:namespace prefix = w ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:word" />Why Serve?

People join boards initially and eventually secure leadership roles for any number of reasons. The traditional adage, "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" tends to typify public, non-governmental organizations. Unfortunately, recent failures and scandals, e.g., Hurricane Katrina,

United Way
, Enron, etc., have elevated the pressure, national outrage, and scrutiny of boards, both for-profit and nonprofit. Albeit these issues garner mass attention, they center on performance, expectations, and evaluation of those in charge - namely directors. They're now being actively debated from the boardroom to
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
. Yet people remain passionate and eager to share their time, expertise, and skills with these volatile nonprofit organizations without pay. Why?

First, and maybe not so obvious, nonprofits are primarily local, community, and service-based organizations but publicly-accountable to a board of directors. Hence, their sphere of influence originates locally. Yet their impact is broadly felt and closely monitored by many. Second, these organizations offer countless opportunities to exhibit one's expertise, which may be undervalued on one's "day job." Third, since volunteering has intrinsic values, understanding Maslow's hierarchy of needs and a person's drive for self-actualization are also intervening factors. Fourth, membership provides opportunities to pilot test and hone valuable multi-tasking skills, perhaps untapped at work. Last, local communities throughout the United States have loads of talented, busy people eager and willing to serve, if simply asked.

Confucius says:
"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."

What's Expected?

Believe it or not, neither boards nor directors are gurus. This principal applies to athletes, business leaders, politicians, pastors, stock brokers, and the like. Indeed, most are everyday people who chose to make a difference by serving others. Tragically, the public has been allowed to place boards too high on the food chain even though they have the right, as beneficiaries, to expect nonprofits to operate ethically. Think of driving a car with bad plugs and a dirty air filter and expecting it to run forever. Clearly, if not replaced, the vehicle eventually sputters and dies. Boards are no different than vehicles; they must be maintained to thrive.

Typically driven by a mission, case, and cause, a nonprofit organization is formed and approved, now the real work begins. Boards must now take full responsibility for leading and ensuring successful operations. That means they have a "fiduciary responsibility" by statute to provide prudent leadership and enterprise management.

The Board Source (Washington, DC) cites several of those core responsibilities: defining a mission and purpose for the nonprofit; hiring/evaluating the CEO/ED; ensuring effective organizational planning, resources, and sustainability; managing those resources; monitoring and strengthening programs; enhancing the nonprofit's image; maintaining ethical/legal standing; and recruiting, orientating, and training new board members. Serving on a board of directors that lacks these skills is troublesome.

Organizations lacking a core mission, vision, and values and prudent management techniques are much more likely to fail. Moreover, the board is responsible for establishing, maintaining, and monitoring its mission and preparing others for service. A critical challenge for contemporary boards will be finding ways to beef-up, improve, and prepare younger middle managers to fill key leadership roles within the organization.

Ask yourself: "how many nonprofits have this mission in writing?" Next, make time to visit an agency you're interested in before jumping in head first, and then informally ask each director or staff member to cite, from memory, the mission without looking it up. Don't be surprised if they fail this defining litmus test.

Who Benefits?

Many American organizations, including nonprofits, are striving to lure new talent by promoting their culture, diversity, ethics, and opportunities for career growth. Demographically, some less-endowed agencies are desperately trying to achieve parity by back-filling vacancies left open by an aging workforce of retiring baby-boomers.

A better strategic strategy for nonprofits seeking to add expertise and value lies in attracting directors based on expertise, political savvy, skills, and access to resources. Granted, wooing them with smoke and mirrors may produce quick results - but remember: boards are mandated by law to respond to community issues, needs, and problems, not put a familiar face on them.

Obviously, directors themselves profit from joining a nonprofit organization. First, boards give directors unlimited freedom to build, form, propose, and sustain their programs. Second, this group of talent professionals can create interpersonal, networking, and political training that yields lifetime benefits beyond the boardroom. Third, by adding new members, the body grows intellectually and operationally to better serve local ills. This fills a real void left by governmental agencies and self-serving private enterprise.

Knitted altogether - boards, directors, staff, clients, funders, and local stakeholders - all benefit from healthy local/state/national nonprofit organizations.

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Ronald Arrington, MBA, MPA: a Consultant, Trainer, Coach, directs a group of training professionals who recognize the grave need to nurture human capital assuring the effective operation of vital boards, leaders, managers and public (more...)

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