Switzer Network Board Service Panel Highlights
On Thursday, November 9, 2023, the Switzer Network convened a Board Service Panel in order to help Switzer Fellows learn from and support each other around the topic of joining, serving on or diversifying nonprofit Boards of Directors.
Five Switzer Fellow panelists from a variety of professional and personal backgrounds shared lessons learned from serving on boards. The group then split into breakout sessions to have smaller discussions around specific topics such as getting started with board service, diversifying a board, and navigating board responsibilities.
Here we share the questions posed to the Switzer Fellow panel, and summaries of their responses. Thank you again to our stellar panelists and everyone who participated in this event!
How and when should you join a board from a career development perspective?
Mackenzie Roeder: As for when to start, I recommend starting early in their career. It gives you a leg up on the job market, and builds confidence and skills. As for how to start, leverage your network. Once you find an organization, you can start small and volunteer in smaller ways. Organizations need help: you will be appreciated and get to know what the group is like. Also, know what you’re committing to when you begin. Being a board member is a significant time commitment!
How do you know if a board is a good fit for you?
Michelle Lewis: Sometimes you don’t! Try to get a sense of what the unstated versus stated expectations are of you by asking questions, and definitely sit in on a board meeting. That will give you a glimpse of what it will be like as a board member and the culture of the organization.
Recognizing that you now have board experience to reflect on, what are some of the main things you would make sure you understood before joining a particular board?
Logan McCoy: Firstly, understand that board work entails real responsibility and liability. Make sure the organization has Directors & Officers Insurance to protect you.
Ask what their expectations for board service are prior to committing. Helpful questions to ask might be:
- Are you expected to donate? If so, how much?
- What’s the expected time commitment?
- How often, what format are meetings?
- What’s the committee structure? What do committees do?
- Are there term limits?
What have you learned or gained from serving on a board?
Melissa Garren: I have learned a lot from seeing an organization or board change over time. When an Executive Director or Board Chair changes, you see how a group adapts to different styles of leadership. That can be a real learning opportunity.
What have been some of the most challenging aspects of board service?
Clara Fang: The experiences that have been the most challenging have also been the most rewarding. Joining an organization as they were growing was a challenge. It was lots of work and we had to deal with growing pains, but it was rewarding to see our success as we grew. Serving on a board for an organization with no paid staff means a lot of work for the board. In that case you’re not just making decisions, but also doing the work to make it happen. Make sure you have the time to implement the decisions you’re making. I’m now serving as the chair of a board, and that has lots of opportunities for new learning and new challenges!
Why is it important to diversify boards, and what are some initial steps to take?
Michelle Lewis: It’s important to diversify boards because we live in a diverse world, that is diverse in many ways. Some organizations have a “toxic charity” model of telling communities “here’s what you need” without truly asking them, and that doesn’t truly serve the community’s needs.
Honesty is really important to get started in diversity work. Identify who’s in the boardroom, and whose voice is missing. Be honest and say “we have a long way to go” if that is the case. Tokenization happens in multiple ways - if you’re seeing that happen, address it. Lastly, you shouldn’t be comfortable. Sticking with what’s comfortable won’t help the organization change or the community.
What are some opportunities and strategies for building justice and equity in the environmental movement through board service?
Clara Fang: Boards make big decisions for organizations. They make the organization’s budget, oversee hiring and firing of executive staff, conduct strategic planning, create diversity plans, make public statements, and more. These decisions have a big impact on organizations. Integrating DEI into the responsibilities of the board in all of these ways can center DEI in the organization’s work and in the world.
What specific skills or qualities do you believe are essential for effective board members?
Mackenzie Roeder: Board members are leaders, so leadership skills are key. Lead by example and inspire others by living and breathing the mission of the organization. Ultimately, boards are made up of people, so good people skills are also important. Having a team of diverse perspectives and skills make up a good board. Strategic thinking and holding the big picture of the organization’s mission and goals is helpful to be able to see the forest for the trees. Ethics and integrity are of course essential as well. Challenges will come up, especially when working with a small team. Good communication skills, as well as being flexible and adaptable will help deal with challenges when they come up.
Can you provide any insight into the balance between governance and operational involvement as a board member? How do you ensure you're fulfilling your role effectively?
Melissa Garren: This depends on the organization - sometimes it’s clear and sometimes it’s muddy. In general, the board is responsible for strategic high level direction, versus the day to day responsibilities of the staff. A working board will have more operations work, however. Committees provide structure for managing the responsibilities of the board.
It’s important that a board not over manage the staff, and give the Executive Director the responsibility of running the organization. The board made the decision to hire the Executive Directors, so we should let them do their work and then check in with them. Boards should make sure that the work happening matches the mission of the organization. It’s also a good idea to have an attorney on the board to make sure legal responsibilities are met.
Clarify the balance between board and staff responsibilities with your team! It changes greatly from organization to organization.
Do board members have to be fundraisers? Do you have any advice on how to leverage your network as a board member trying to fundraise, especially for younger professionals?
Logan McCoy: This depends on the organization, but in many cases the answer is yes. That said, you shouldn’t be pressured to approach your community if you know they don’t have the capacity to donate. This can be a DEI issue.
You can approach other organizations, or individuals that do have the means and whose interests are aligned. A starting point could be to invite them to an event where the ticket price is the donation. Then they learn more about the organization and get something in return as well.
If you are not able to donate money or fundraise, contributing your time is also a meaningful way to give. For example, grant writing can be a really useful skill to volunteer instead of making a donation. Set expectations about fundraising when you join the board. Ask about this right away and be clear about what you can contribute.