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Nonprofits, Boards and Managing Expectations: A Two-Way Street

John F. MarshallJohn+Marshal+for+web
Senior Vice President

In 2016, I will mark my 40th year as a fundraising professional. During that time I have served in higher education, healthcare, human services and the arts. Each sector was much different from the others with one exception: nonprofits within each are (for the most part) governed by Boards of Directors and rely on their voluntary expertise.

Throughout my career – whether it was with a Big Ten University, a nationally prominent provider of human services or a hospital foundation – I have had the opportunity to work with Boards of all shapes and sizes. Every Board I worked with also seemed to be unique: some with a cast of seemingly thousands of members and others with as few as six; some with more committees than Carter has pills and others with only an Executive Committee calling the shots. Some had a terrific composition (men, women, ethnic diversity, young, old) and others consisted of 100% “good ol’ boys”. I have worked with Boards where changing lives for the better was preeminent and those where “what’s for lunch” seemed to be a top priority.

It has been my experience those Boards that were most effective were those where there was absolute clarity in terms of expectations: of Board members by the organization and of the organization by Board members. Without such clarity…well, things just could (and often did) result in less than great outcomes.

Let me share with you my “Top Ten” list of organizational expectations of Board members:

  1. Take attendance at Board and committee meetings seriously. In other words, “SHOW UP!”
  2. Become fully informed about the organization and commit to its mission.
  3. Help ensure effective planning.
  4. See that the organization’s resources are managed effectively.
  5. Enhance the organization’s public image: speak well of it and speak often.
  6. Serve as an enthusiastic ambassador for the organization within the community.
  7. Utilize your personal and professional skills for the betterment of the organization.
  8. Give to the best of your ability and assist in the identification, cultivation and solicitation of prospective donors.
  9. Self-assess your personal performance as a Board member. Are you doing all you can?
  10. Assist in recruiting new members to the Board.

OK, now let me also share with you my “Top Ten” list of Board member expectations of the organization:

  1. A clear and all-encompassing job description.
  2. Frequent communication about the organization’s programs, developments and potentially negative issues.
  3. Provide meaningful opportunities to serve.
  4. Use Board members’ time appropriately, not wastefully.
  5. Provide ongoing education and training.
  6. Serve as a responsible steward of the organization’s resources.
  7. Staff leadership will be active participants with the Board in raising funds.
  8. Ensure that Board meetings are substantive and that Board members are given every opportunity for meaningful input/participation.
  9. Assign adequate staff to assist Board members in their responsibilities.
  10. Actively participate with Board members in the recruitment and orientation of new Board members.

You can see on the above list of expectations a Board member should have of the organization, I have made my #1 expectation a clear and all-encompassing job description. That is not my #1 by chance or mistake. How many times have I asked the question “Do your Board members have a job description?” and been told too often something like “Well, kinda, but it’s pretty old” or “We don’t really need one – everyone knows what they are supposed to do.”


Any prospective new Board member who is worth his/her salt is invariably going to ask the question “What am I supposed to do? Is there a job description I can review?” To respond in the manner I just quoted will most likely result in a polite “Thanks, but no thanks…” response.

If you currently don’t possess a job description or have been thinking about revising your current one, let me offer the following for your consideration:

  1. Become fully-informed about the programs and services of the organization and committed to its Mission.
  2. Be as personally generous a donor to the organization as possible and lead the organization to others who have the capacity to be financially supportive.
  3. Serve as an ambassador for the organization within the community, utilizing your connections to access community resources and volunteers and enhance the image of the organization.
  4. Identify those within the community who have influence and affluence and be a leader in recruiting them to the Board.
  5. Attend Board meetings on a consistent basis and actively participate.
  6. Serve on at least one Board committee, attend those meetings on a regular basis and actively participate.
  7. Be willing to utilize your professional expertise and the expertise of those you are associated with for the betterment of the organization.
  8. Be willing to perform a self-assessment of your performance as a Board member and make improvements.

JB+A has been engaged with a great many organizations in strengthening the effectiveness of Boards of Directors. To discuss how we can be of further assistance to you in this regard, call 816.237.1999 or email me at

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