Use board member job descriptions to clarify roles and expectations
The first question we typically ask at our training sessions and workshops on the board's roles and responsibilities is: Do you have a board member job description? More often than not, the answer is a resounding "no."
As we conclude our sessions, we tell attendees that if they do nothing else when they leave us, we hope they go back and create job descriptions — not only for the board members, but also for the officers and the committees. Doing so allows board members to understand their legal, fiduciary and ethical responsibilities, as well as their commitment in terms of time, treasure and talent.
Why bother to create a board member job description?
Why do we feel that the board member job description is so critical to creating a high performing board? Quite frankly, without it there is:
- No clarity around the expectations the organization has for its board members
- No basis for accountability when a board member doesn't perform as expected
- No distinction and boundaries between the role of the board members and those of the executive director and staff
This lack of clarity and accountability can create confusion and waste the time and energy of the board and the organization.
What's the not-so-secret recipe?
According to BoardSource, a board of directors has four primary responsibilities:
- Mission: create a clear, succinct mission statement that expresses the organization's core values and reason for being and revisit this mission regularly, revising if necessary
- Oversight: establish appropriate checks and balances to ensure the organization is well managed and its mission is carried out
- Resource development: ensure the organization has the financial and human resources it needs to fulfill its mission
- Outreach: connect with the external community to promote the organization's mission, values and programs (for example, through recruiting new board members, volunteers and donors, expanding the organization's network of supporters)
Each member plays a critical role in contributing to the overall board responsibilities described above. An effective board member job description will specifically outline the obligations each member is expected to meet in regard to these four areas of board governance.
What fundraising responsibilities should be included?
For example, what responsibilities in regard to fundraising should be included in a job description? We suggest the following.
As a board, provide fiduciary oversight to the fundraising efforts:
- Ensure that there is an annual fundraising plan in place.
- Monitor the results of the plan.
As an individual board member, assist with the organization's fundraising efforts:
- Identify and cultivate relationships with potential donors.
- Support the organization's annual giving program by giving as generously as possible.
- Attend fundraising events.
Clearly articulating fundraising expectations is particularly important. Many board members join a board, unaware that they have a responsibility to both give a personal gift to the organization as well as help fundraise on behalf of the organization. A clear job description leaves no ambiguity about what is expected of a board member, should they decide to serve on the board.
Putting it to good use
Potential board members should carefully review the job description before they agree to join the board. It is a critical tool in the recruiting process because it clearly articulates what is expected of all board members in the organization. There should be no surprises once the candidate becomes a board member. Too often we hear board members say "no one told me I would have to make a gift" or "no one told me I would have to serve on a committee" or "I didn't know that I had to attend all the board meetings." The time to make these expectations clear is during the recruiting process, which allows a prospective board member to make an informed decision about making a commitment to your board.
Once the person has accepted the role, the new board member should see the job description at the new board member orientation. This is the time to delve into the board member expectations and allow new board members to ask questions and fully understand the scope of what is expected of them.
It is ideal to reissue a copy of the job description annually at the first board meeting of the year to remind everyone of their roles and responsibilities. Some organizations choose to have board members sign the document to acknowledge that it has been read and agreed to.
The job description should also be included in a board member handbook or reference materials, whether in a physical notebook or a digital file.
If a board member is not meeting the articulated expectations, the board chair can use the job description as a reminder. It can function as a jumping-off point for a discussion by restating the expectations and allowing both parties to determine if the board member is willing or able to meet the job expectations and continue serving on the board.
Professionally, none of us would hire someone without making it clear what is expected. The same should hold true when recruiting and selecting board members for a nonprofit organization. The board member job description is the first and most important step to ensure that an organization has a high-performing board — a board whose members know what is expected of them and who work to support the organization and its mission.
For more from Amy Cahners and Susan Donahue, visit Cahners and Donahue Associates.