Want to Serve on a Non-Profit Board? Put Your Business Hat On.

It lifts us up when we do “good” for others: Help our neighbor, donate money to charity, volunteer at an event, or serve on a non-profit board. 

Non-profit board positions are platforms from which we can lead, engage support, and help more people. 

Some people “collect” board appointments to look important and influential. Others can’t get beyond operational details to focus on the long-term. Many are so uncomfortable with risk that they obstruct growth. That’s not what non-profits need. 

Non-profits need board members with a strong business sense. 

A non-profit is a business 

“No, no,” some say. “We’re not a business because:  

  • We’re publicly funded.
  • We have a mission to fulfill.
  • We don’t compete with anyone.
  • We don’t need fancy business processes.
  • We’re a small agency, more like a family. “

The reply: 

“You’re a business when you need money from someone else to pay the bills.”

Non-profits are in the business of doing good work. So they need to operate like a business and board members need to ensure it.

The challenge for non-profit boards is to understand how to merge: 

A mission-based model where the: 

  • bottom line is social change
  • revenue stream comes from donors, grantors and/or members
  • work is done by paid (perhaps) and unpaid staff (volunteers)
  • approach requires partnering

And the business model where the:

  •  bottom line is profit
  • the revenue stream comes from customers and/or investors 
  • work is done by paid staff 
  • approach is competitive 

Plenty of non-profits compete against each other for the same dollars and support, accumulate large surplus dollars, build endowments, and have significant staffs and property. That’s how we know that the business model is alive and well in the mission world of non-profits. 

The mission is your business: It’s what the non-profit exists to do.  

As a board member, your job is to look at the organization’s performance results and determine whether or not they are delivering on the mission. 

Lead: Don’t meddle 

Board members aren’t executive directors. They don’t handle day-to-day, operational matters. Effective board members understand their role is governance, meaning they: 

  • Collaborate with the Executive Director/CEO (their employee) If there is no paid staff, the board president and/or executive committee are default leadership staff.
  • Raise and/or contribute money
  • Provide fiduciary oversight
  • Ensure mission advancement 

Board leadership needs to focus on: 

  • Defining the realities facing the organization 
    • capabilities and risks
    • environmental/political conditions
    • financials
  • Setting direction and communicating with constituencies 
  • Demonstrating:
    • Ethics and integrity
    • Decisiveness and commitment
    • Respect for people and viewpoints
    • Accountability for outcomes
  •  Goal setting that turns good intentions into real outcomes 

As a board member, you make sure the organization doesn’t lose its way. Your job is to treat “doing good work” like any other product or service, using the same rigorous business best practices, tough decision-making, and calculated risk-taking that you’d undertake at a for-profit business.

Make a difference 

Non-profit board positions are precious opportunities to lead with a purpose. If you want a taste of leadership for your career growth, there are few better opportunities. If you want to drive change, non-profit boards are powerful platforms.

The challenges are great. Too many non-profit boards flounder for lack of business acumen, skill, or courage. They need you.

Our communities can’t afford to have its non-profits go out of business or to perform below their capabilities. The work is too valuable. Non-profit organizations are our collective way to better world. Let’s make them better. 

Photo from hoshi7 via Flickr