Broadening Perspectives:

How Boards Add Value

Published: November 14th, 2022

              When it’s working the way that it should, a board of directors can be a dream come true: a team of dedicated professionals, from different backgrounds, who help keep an organization stable and headed in the right direction. And you don’t even have to pay them! It sounds like a fantasy. But anyone in the nonprofit world knows that it can also work in the opposite way: board members can be apathetic, they can be disconnected from the needs of the organization, and they can slow down its progress through poor decision making or by not making decisions at all.

Sheena Solomon is the Executive Director of The Gifford Foundation. She is pictured smiling with a yellow dress and red hair.

Sheena Solomon is the Executive Director of the Gifford Foundation.

How can you make sure that your organization’s board is adding value? Much like with cooking, the success comes from choosing quality ingredients, combining them in the right way, and knowing why they are there in the first place. Just as every board member should know what they bring to the table, the rest of the board should make it clear what that person’s roles and responsibilities are.

If someone is invited because they have a background in finance, the Board President should work with them to find the specific ways that person can help – and then to make sure that person is comfortable and able to play that role. This might mean serving on the Finance Committee and giving presentations to the rest of the board about the organization’s financial health. By making the role as transparent as possible, it is easier to maintain accountability.

Even though each board member should have their own unique role, they should also understand the responsibilities that they all share. New York State law actually requires that board members uphold certain standards and priorities when governing an organization. These include the Duty of Obedience and the Duty of Care, and Duty of Loyalty.

These may sound like they are boring, obvious, or both, but I have seen how they can help with decision making and I encourage every board member to study them. For example, the Duty of Obedience says that you must use the organization’s resources in support of its mission. Maybe your nonprofit has the opportunity to earn a large grant by launching a new program that will take up staff time. Should you do it? The Duty of Obedience reminds you that if that program doesn’t directly relate to your mission, you should avoid it – no matter what the financial benefits may be.

Maybe you are on a board that is processing a whistleblower complaint against the Executive Director for breaching their confidentiality policy. You know that the Executive Director is guilty and has a history of sharing private information after a few glasses of wine, but you like them as a person and don’t want them to have the financial strain that comes with losing their job. Understanding the Duty of Care reminds you that your responsibility is to the organization first: if that person cannot faithfully perform the role, your responsibility is to find someone who can.

Let’s say you are attending a conference on behalf of the organization whose board you are on. While you are there, someone offers you a business opportunity. You know that your organization would benefit from this contract, but you also know that your employer could also do the same work and you might get a raise out of it. What should you do? The Duty of Loyalty says that because you are at the conference representing the organization, and because it is an opportunity that your organization could benefit from, you are responsible to bring it to them first.

Most of being on a board is common sense: be honest, communicate well, and always put your organization’s interests before your own. It also means knowing what you bring to the table, and standing up for it. If you can commit to these standards, and make sure that other board members do the same, your organization will be on the right path.

Sheena Solomon, Executive Director

Subscribe to the Gifford Newsletter

Start enjoying our free quarterly publication today.

Stay in the loop!

Join our mailing list to receive occasional articles and updates about grants, programs, and the CNY nonprofit community.

You have Successfully Subscribed!