Let’s say you were given this opportunity:
· Assume legal and financial responsibility for a small- or medium-sized corporation that has no product or service to sell;
· Sacrifice important time away from your business interests and personal and family life to ensure the success of this enterprise; and
· Pay — rather than be paid — to do it.
That’s basically the bargain members of most nonprofit boards in the U.S. agree to. Boards are ultimately responsible for the mission, health and sustainability of the organizations they serve. Time commitments for board and committee meetings, events and other activities are not immaterial. And board members — volunteers who do not get paid — are generally expected to give financially to their organizations.
The responsibility is not inconsequential: I heard a story about the founder of a nonprofit who told a group of friends he needed their names for the board of directors of his organization, but not their time or ideas. When a new director was brought on to professionalize the board, he explained to the other directors that by serving, they had actual legal and fiduciary responsibilities. Most of them quit. Upon reflection, they didn’t think it was such a good deal.
Members of Americares board of directors walk the walk, going to Puerto Rico to see the impact of Americares emergency response after Hurricane Maria. Left to right: Samhita Jayanti, Mehdi Mahmud, Roberta Conroy and Sarah Saint-Amand.
The reality is that nonprofit boards are essential in our society. In the United States alone, they lead an estimated 1.5 million nonprofits that provide critical social services, support disaster victims, champion the arts, education and health care here at home and combat poverty and disease around the world.
I believe strong boards are critical to effective nonprofits. Boards can be anchors that weigh down a nonprofit with poor governance, management meddling and dysfunction. Or, they can be fuel that energizes strategic vision, supports senior leaders and engages external constituencies.
Last week the board of directors at Americares gathered for its fall meeting. The gathering was a few days after our major annual fundraising gala — another event at which our directors play an important role by introducing guests to our work. Listening to board members and watching them in action, I can say that Americares directors do in fact add fuel to our mission, pushing and propelling us to make an even bigger impact in the world.
In Guatemala, where drought put children at risk of malnutrition, a child is measured to make certain he’s growing and thriving. An Americares program in the region aims to prevent malnutrition. Photo by William Vazquez
And despite the responsibilities they shoulder, our directors will tell you they get more out of serving than they put in. In exchange for the time, talent and treasure they contribute, their work with Americares provides them the opportunity to make meaningful and important contributions to their community and the world — well beyond what they could do on their own.
I am certain most nonprofit board directors recognize similar benefits. Why else would they take such a deal?