Board Responsibilities

Q: I was recently asked to be on the board of my local river group and I accepted—perhaps too hastily.  My problem is, now that I’m on the board, I’m not sure what my job is. Can you help me?

A: Being on a nonprofit board can be really fun—some people are in it for the chance to socialize with likeminded people, some are in it to feel like they’re making a difference for their local river, and some people—like you, maybe?—are there because someone asked them. 

First, all non-profit organizations require a board of directors to exist, and the vast majority of charitable organizations in the country are what are called 501(c)(3) organizations (named after the section in the Internal Revenue Code that describes them).  501(c)(3) nonprofits don’t have to pay income tax, are eligible to apply for grants and can accept donations that are tax deductible to the donor, among other things.  Because nonprofits get these benefits, a board of directors is required to oversee the organization.

The legal reason for a nonprofit board of directors is that,  just because a nonprofit organization is not technically “profitable,” that doesn’t mean that they don’t make money, and somebody has to be accountable to the people who are investing their cash in an organization that is providing a public service—like protecting a local river. A board member’s job is to oversee  the organization’s finances AND fundraise for the organization(either by “giving or getting” money), review monthly financial reports, approve the budget and ask good questions and exercising due diligence.  The board also is responsible for appointing a capable chief staff person (in some cases), and through maintaining control of Big Decisions such as merging, closing, or substantial changes to mission.

And speaking of mission—a board member has a responsibility to the organization’s mission.  Typically, if you’re on the board of a nonprofit, it means you have some sort of investment in the mission of that organization and want to make sure the organization is having an impact. This is the fun stuff for people who love rivers and have opinions about how they should be protected. It’s where the volunteering, the advising and the championing come in. 

The board also acts as a safety net for the mission of the organization. You’ve probably heard of boards that have picked up the pieces after a disastrous executive director left in the middle of the night. If a small business had a similar problem, it would probably have to close. But many important nonprofit charities have survived to do good work again because a board has stepped in. Even the boards that haven’t been paying much attention can wake up and work miracles in a pinch.

Finally, nonprofit boards are responsible for being accountable to the folks the nonprofit serves.  They ask the question, "What does our constituency need us to do?"  In a river group, that constituency might be the people who fish, swim and boat the river—it could even be the wildlife that relies on the river to survive.  Whoever it is that your board views as its “constituency,” that’s who you’re doing your work for. Though it can be tempting to make program decisions based on what you think this donor or that friend might want us to do, our responsibility as nonprofit  board members is always keeping that constituency in mind when making decisions for the organization.

So, all this said, the board probably asked you to join because they thought you could offer something important to the organization. It’s okay to ask them why they asked you because that might help you know which hat you’ll need to wear as a member of this organization. If you’re both an accountant and an avid paddler, they might have taken a look at your resume and thought you would be a good addition to their organization.  But it’s nice to be able to be clear on that from the beginning.

Also, you might want suggest that the board create a “Board Book” that outlines what the board roles and responsibilities are for that particular nonprofit.  It can help orient a new board member in a way that makes them feel like they’re set up to succeed in the organization.

For more on Board of Directors Roles and Responsibilities, click here for the River Network board resource library.