Board Service is Good (For Nonprofits and For Business)




This blog post was originally written for Texas CEO Magazine

In high-functioning nonprofits, the board of directors tends to be the lifeblood of the organization, effectively balancing the strategic, oversight, fundraising, and accountability-ensuring responsibilities with which boards are endowed. In under-performing nonprofits, we almost always find boards who exhibit some combination of being disengaged, not sufficiently made up of the right people, stacked with cheerleaders and “yes-men”, focused on the wrong things, and/or completely lacking an understanding of that makes for a great board and nonprofit.

But the nonprofit board of directors is the nexus of where a nonprofit’s mission, business model, and sustainable impact meet a community’s abilities and need for engagement and leadership. It is where the business sector and the nonprofit sector meet to achieve both community goals and business objectives.

Most business executives choose to join the governing board of a charitable organization primarily out of a passion for its mission. Whether the mission is eradicating a disease which has affected a relative, ensuring the less fortunate have the same opportunities they were given, advancing a cause that is core to their faith, or some other cause, business leaders most often agree to serve out of a sense of altruism. And these are the right reasons.

But increasingly, astute business leaders are recognizing that serving themselves, and even encouraging or flat-out requiring other leaders in their companies to serve on nonprofit boards, can bring potentially powerful benefits to their companies and to their people. Similar to a for-profit board, nonprofit boards are empowered by state and federal law with the duties of loyalty, care, and obedience for the nonprofit organization, and they are the closest thing to a group of “shareholders” one can find in the nonprofit sector. As such, they are held to a high standard of performance and governance, and with that can come both incredible individual professional development and opportunities for advancement of the company they represent.

Where else can a company send an emerging executive who, for the most part, focuses his or her day job on one particular aspect of the business (be it marketing, IT, product development, etc.) for the kind of free, cross-cutting managerial training that being on a nonprofit board can provide? Nonprofit boards deal continuously with real-life governance and management issues that touch on all aspects of running a business, including strategy-setting, long-range planning, financial forecasting, advocacy, and much more. Nonprofit boards are also typically a hotbed of relationship development with other business and community leaders, and as such can be a prime element of a company’s business development strategy. The 15 minutes before and after many nonprofit board meetings are often full of great business development conversations, and most nonprofit leaders love to see that happening in their boardrooms.

In Central Texas alone, Greenlights for Nonprofit Success recently gathered data that documented 7,000+ empty nonprofit board seats. The need is evident, the benefits are many and clear, yet many businesses still see volunteerism, even this form of “leadership volunteerism”, as more of a distraction from, rather than a prime contributor to, business success.

Greenlights is boldly doing something about making it easier for businesses to encourage community engagement and for nonprofits to find and connect with board prospects. Our brand new OnBoard website tool is an online marketplace for open nonprofit board seats, similar in many ways to an online job board, the first of its kind in Texas.

But for our communities in Texas to be stronger through a stronger nonprofit sector, it is going to take a new (or renewed) focus from both nonprofit leaders and business leaders on both the charitable and the profitable rationale for an increased focus on board service.

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