Why would anyone want to, or concede to, serving on a board of directors for a not-for-profit organization? The pay is lousy. The thanks and recognition is muted. The aggravation can be grating and painful. The need to compromise, in an arena where one’s values form the basis for service, can be excruciatingly stomach-churning. The requirements to loosen one’s wallet and sacrifice scarcely available time can be disconcerting. Is there any upside?
Not-for-profit board service, pure and simple, is an exercise in giving. Two key ingredients accompany most such sacrifices. They include giving up a portion of one’s time, as well as a portion of one’s wealth. Seldom do these two requirements generate any realistic expectation of a return on investment. They simply represent a contribution to someone’s idea of making this world a better place in which to live. Generally, the better world accrues to someone else, not the volunteer board member.
Let’s dispense with the obviously shallow reasons that people allow themselves to join and serve a not-for-profit board of directors. First, board service can serve as a source of prestige. Obviously, when a person volunteers to serve on a board of directors, it is the result of someone asking him to do it. The reason that anyone gets asked to serve relates to someone else’s perception that the potential recruit has something of value that can contribute to an organization’s betterment. This might involve the perception of intelligence, a particular expertise, societal connections, wealth, or societal standing. Therefore, one’s acquiescence to serve may result from the honor or respect shown by the person and organization asking for the contribution of talent.
Second, boards exercise power over the organizations they intend to serve. Membership on a board of directors, therefore, offers each board member a sense of power over things that influence the lives, careers and overall well-being of others.
Third, board service can look good on a resume. Anybody who wants to project himself to the community and world around him wants to convey a record of community service. Board service represents an excellent way to do this.
Fourth, board service allows board members to mingle and associate with other board members who often are considered leaders in their communities. Therefore, important business connections can be established and cultivated. Business and personal opportunities can also accrue to those involved in conversations with other board members who occupy positions of influence outside of board service.
Realistically, these considerations often serve to entice talented members of the community towards service in governance to not-for-profit organizations. But, if any or all of these reasons, either individually or collectively, constitute the primary reasons for a person’s acquiescence to board service, such board member’s motivations are misguided. It’s not to say that any of these intangible benefits would not accrue. Rather, the gift of service simply will not, at least immediately, engender the passion and intensity of good will necessary for governance excellence. To volunteer one’s time and talent to anything in a less than passionate way is to counterfeit the contribution and compromise the noble cause for which the organization exists. Thus, caving in to the temptation to better oneself in the guise of helping others, denigrates the whole act of giving. It cheapens it. And it weakens the organization that acquires it.
Board service, first and foremost, represents an act of giving. Although most organizations, when they receive contributions of time or treasure, do not try to distinguish superficial giving from heartfelt giving, their receipt of superficially offered time and talent dilutes their ability to leverage these things to the benefit of targeted beneficiaries. Superficial giving of time and talent represents an injustice to everybody, both the ultimate recipient and the giver.
Not-for-profit organizations are created for and exist to serve segments of society where the worthiness of service is judged not only on the basis of what a willing buyer will pay for it. Service is also judged by the worthiness of the greater benefit to society that accrues through the organization’s programs. Therefore, superficial givers of time and talent jeopardize the maximization of societal benefit.
Board service should represent the passionate intension to leverage individual talents to improve societal function. The betterment of society can happen, in part, through the collective efforts of a not-for-profit organization and its leaders to fulfill a worthwhile mission through effective and efficient programs. So, in this context, why would a person possessing the time and talent necessary to beneficially contribute to board service positively respond to a request to serve? The answer should relate to several factors.
First, a potential board member should understand and passionately support the mission and purpose that the organization seeks to achieve. Second, he should be convinced that that he possesses the necessary talent and time to effectively benefit the board that seeks him. Third, he should possess a desire, not just willingness, to leverage his time and talent unselfishly in response to personal gratitude for the opportunities and success that his community has afforded him. Effectively, he should want to “pay back” society for what he has been able to extract from it.
Finally, he should realize that the success he achieves in life, through the accumulation of things, cannot truly be considered success until he has made a net beneficial impact upon the community through his participation in it. In fact, he should measure his success through the value of his contributions back to society rather than the value of things taken from it.
Societal contributions cannot occur without societal accumulation. Therefore, effective giving represents the highest and best measure of success that anyone can claim. The satisfaction resulting from personal knowledge of this success represents the culmination of a worthwhile life.
Success in life is defined not in terms of the amount of wealth that one accumulates. Rather, success is the degree to which one, through his own contributions to society and the people around him, leaves the world a better place.
Not-for-profit board service can represent an important contribution of one’s accumulated wealth, including talent, time and experience, to a mission that genuinely represents a legitimate vehicle for giving back to the community. Passionately skilled board service, honed through training and experience, can leverage native intelligence and skill into an organizational engine component necessary for its functionality and efficiency.
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JR Haeck Governance Consulting offers Board Training in a variety of contexts.
- Board Training – Fundamentals of Board Effectiveness and Efficiency
- New Board Member Training – Routine Orientation in Board Process and Procedure.
- Chairman Training – Individual Counseling on What Makes Boards Effective and Efficient
- Board Retreat – Board Training in the Context of Off-Campus Brainstorming and Deliberation
John R Haeck, CPA
JR Haeck Professional Corporation