Board Members or Members Who Are Bored: Are Lay Leaders Really An Asset to the Nonprofit Organization?

The board is responsible for the governance of the organization and is accountable for its financial stability as well as the quality of services delivered to the community.

[eJP note: Being a board member is hard work; a board chair, even more so. In looking at some of our most high profile organizations – in both Israel and the US – we find chairs who have abdicated all responsibility to the professional staff and board members, most of whom are smart successful individuals, at a loss for understanding what oversight actually means. Here is the 1st of several articles from our archives we hope will spur discussion and action.]

By Stephen G. Donshik
Originally published February 2009

The board of directors of a nonprofit organization is composed of people who care about the services provided by the agency. The members of the board demonstrate their commitment not only by contributing financially to the organization but also by a variety of leadership roles they can play. Their credibility is established by their participation in the fundraising efforts of the organization and they build upon this through their involvement in the governance processes.

Board members, individually and collectively, represent the sanction and support of a response to an identified social need in the community. One of the major differences between services provided by the voluntary sector, as different from services in the public sector, is the way the programs evolve based on a desire to respond to a void in dealing with a variety of human needs. It is the result of indigenous community members coming together and assuming responsibility for the implementation of programs rather than calling for the government to respond.

The board is responsible for the governance of the organization and is accountable for its financial stability as well as the quality of services delivered to the community. In fulfilling its responsibility for the former each member of the board contributes to the annual fundraising effort as well as assisting in the ongoing efforts to identify additional sources of support. Once there is a sound fiscal base then the board can concentrate on the latter and focus on the provision of services.

Each board member brings a different knowledge and skill set to their position as a lay leader. It is the responsibility of the professional staff to assist each person in locating the appropriate position for the person in the organization. It may be serving on one or more of the standing or permanent committees listed in the by-laws, for some members and for other members it may be volunteering for special activities or events.

It is most important for the board members to have a sense of self-fulfillment in their involvement on behalf of the nonprofit organization. Through their participation in the board a number of people will take on additional responsibilities and become part of the leadership of the organization. These people will become chairpersons of committees and eventually take on the chair or presidency of the board. In some cases these leaders will be role models for newer members of the board.

An integral part of the agency’s growth is the initiation of a lay leadership development program. This type of board activity helps to groom emerging leaders and strengthens the organization by insuring a smooth transition between present and future leaders. Informal educational programs also provide for the identification and selection of the most talented people who have the most potential to work on behalf of the organization.

When the lay leaders are appropriately involved in a nonprofit they will not be “bored” and they will be one of the greatest assets in providing for the growth and sustainability of the organization. This is important social capital and every effort should be made to utilize the members of the board of directors to the greatest extent possible.

When originally published, Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W. was a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program.