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When You Don't Know, What You Don't Know!

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

As an African American leader, it is often daunting to join a nonprofit board or committee. The problem is two-fold, first, there is the challenge of mastering all the steps of operating a nonprofit board or committee. Second, few boards and committees are typically representative of the U.S. population. In addition, newer boards typically have less diversity than nonprofits that have existed for several decades. For these reasons, it is vital for those who are volunteering on a nonprofit board or committee to develop their skills through continual learning.

The Role of Nonprofit Board Members

Every nonprofit has a different focus. Some offer low-income family resources, shelter for the homeless, and advocate on the member's behalf. Although every organization operates differently, each nonprofit has board members and organization staff that must accomplish both legal and practical duties. These duties help organizations continue to achieve their mission.

As a nonprofit board member, it is your job to help the organization operate perpetually by securing resources and following legal and financial policies. The primary duties of a nonprofit organization, like with any corporation, are to provide Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty, and Duty of Obedience according to the National Council of Nonprofits. Here are the definitions of these three duties that you can expect to be responsible for as a committee or board member.

Duty of Care

As a nonprofit board or committee member, you need a level of competence to conduct your job. But how competent must you be to sit on a board or committee? The Duty of Care rule explains that you must offer careful handling of practical matters to the level that an ordinarily prudent person in a similar position would provide. If that sounds stressful, do not worry—you are not required to be perfect at your role, and no one can avoid mistakes.

Instead, you will need to make reasonable decisions while helping lead the organization. You can exercise your Duty of Care by:

  • Staying up to date on the organization, including but not limited to its mission, values, present and future goals.

  • Participating in group meetings. Failure to join discussions in-person or over the phone is a failure to carry out your fiduciary duties.

  • Understand the financial status of your organization while also creating reports that help the board make important decisions.

Duty of Loyalty

The next duty a nonprofit committee or board member must focus on is their Duty of Loyalty. It is your legal responsibility to give your allegiance to the organization while making choices on the nonprofit's behalf. Board and committee members should always act within the organizational best interests while putting aside personal and professional interests that would conflict with their role.

Duty of Obedience

When people give to nonprofits, they expect that the leadership and staff will adequately manage the donations to fulfill its mission. For a nonprofit to achieve its mission, board and committee members must adhere to organization by-laws and local and federal laws. Doing so fulfills their Duty of Obedience requirements.

These requirements are straightforward, yet they require knowledge in several areas of managing a corporation that the average person lacks. But do not be embarrassed if you feel that you don't have all the knowledge necessary for being a board member. You can develop many of the knowledge and skills you are currently lacking by preparing for your meetings, attending requisite meetings, thinking independently, and continuing your education.

Serving on a board requires you to have a complete understanding of how the organization operates so that you and other board members can make valuable decisions to move the nonprofit forward. The best way to accomplish your duties as a board member is through continual education, learning, and improvement within your role.

The Importance of Continual Learning for Nonprofit Board or Committee Members

As you can tell based on the fiduciary duties of the role, board members and the leadership have a variety of tasks to accomplish to move the organization forward. Even if you do not take on a chairperson, secretary, treasurer, or another leadership role, achieving success as a board member requires several skills.

What Should You Learn?

You will need knowledge of finance, budgeting, nonprofit law, and parliamentary procedure. You should also profoundly understand your organization's legal duties and responsibilities as a board or committee member.

That is a lot for one individual to manage, especially if you have recently joined or are considering joining a nonprofit board. However, suppose you do not take time to learn skills to grow the organization. In that case, you risk making mistakes that can significantly impact a nonprofit.

For instance, it is typical for new board and committee members to see the CEO as an individual they cannot challenge. However, it is the board members who are responsible for hiring the executive director, selecting his/her compensation, and providing oversight of the day-to-day operations.

Thus, nonprofit boards of directors should prepare to make challenging decisions. It is especially the case when members believe that business leaders, other board or committee members, or paid staff break the law or demonstrate misconduct against the organization.

For this reason, organizations should establish policies explaining how to operate during conflicts of interest and how to meet their Duty of Care, Loyalty, and Obedience. But what should you do if you don't currently have the proper board training?

Resources For Nonprofit Board & Committee Members

Participating on a board or committee as a volunteer is no small task and requires knowledge that you will develop throughout the years. Several organizations can help guide you to continuing education resources in your area or online. Listed below are a few organizations that will help you develop the skills necessary to work within a nonprofit board or committee:

Additionally, those who plan to become board members can work with small committees or focus groups to develop their communication skills. Actions like sharing your ideas and having constructive debates will further your education and prepare you for a role on a nonprofit board or committee. It’s a simple, yet effective way to become more confident in a leadership role within an organization.

According to a 2018 report in the Non Profit Times, “Nonprofit boards are 78.6 percent white, 7.5 percent African American, 4.2 percent Latino American, and 2.6 percent Asian American, according to The Impact of Diversity: Understanding How Nonprofit Board Diversity Affects Philanthropy, Leadership, and Board Engagement”.

In conclusion, for minorities considering joining or actively participating within a nonprofit board or committee, it is easy to get lost in all your duties and responsibilities. Fortunately, you can volunteer to serve on smaller community, school, or church committees and focus groups to learn new skills and gain the knowledge to perform your role adequately. Although nonprofit training in finance and parliamentary procedures might take time to learn, your dedication to continual learning will make you a valuable member of any organization.

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