9 tips for becoming an effective NFP board member

Kylie Meyer
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As a long-time board member, I’ve learned a lot about the difference a well-functioning board can make to the success of an organisation. I’m currently a Chair/Trustee for a national not-for-profit (NFP) that helps young people to thrive, develop confidence and positively contribute to our communities. It’s wonderful to see what can be achieved for our young people through an organisation with an effective board and team.

Based on my own experiences, these are my tips for NFP board members.

1  Align your board appointments with causes you are passionate about 

For most NFPs, board members are unpaid, so being personally aligned with the purpose of the entity is essential to keep you motivated and engaged. Volunteers who lack engagement won’t add value to the charity’s mission, purpose and overall impact.  

If you don’t feel strongly about the cause, leave the board position for someone who has the passion needed to be productive and enjoy their role.  

2  Foster a positive environment where everyone can express their opinions 

If nobody is willing to speak up with different opinions and ideas, you will make very little progress. Equally unhelpful, but more stressful, is a meeting filled with conflict, where everybody disagrees and no consensus can be reached. 

You need to find a balance. All boards will have times where there isn’t consensus. The key to achieving a resolution starts with everyone feeling comfortable about expressing their opinions regardless of whether they’re popular. This involves creating a safe environment where everyone has the freedom to be authentic and bring their true opinion to the table.  I have personally experienced times where there have been disagreements among board members. When this happens, everyone needs time to express their views, and to respect everyone’s differences in opinion. This way, a consensus is reached faster, and when everyone supports the final decision it’s an extremely positive experience.  

3  If you bring a problem, also bring a solution 

It’s not uncommon to sit on a board or committee with someone who likes to turn up and throw a problem or two on the table. This negativity will make everyone else feel like there’s an extra weight on their shoulders as they try to solve the problem.  

A far more powerful and productive approach is to by all means raise your issue, but also put some thoughts together about potential solutions to show that you are willing to work collaboratively as a team to find a resolution. 

4  Encourage diversity of thought 

Diversity isn’t just about ticking boxes. It’s not about ‘Do we have a woman on the board?’. It’s about ‘Is the person opposite me going to challenge me? Are they going to bring different perspectives and see the issues through a different lens?’. Look for people who fill gaps in thinking or perspective to help represent various points of view, so you can cover as many angles as possible and ultimately get the most out of every discussion. 

5  Roll up your sleeves and get involved 

Boards for large businesses might be purely strategic. But NFP boards need more than just top-level engagement. As a charity trustee board member, expect to roll up your sleeves and delve into operations from time to time. If your approach is, ‘That’s not really the role of the board, I don’t want to help with that,’ you’re not likely to win any friends as the rest of the board members knuckle down and start working on day-to-day problems. It can also give you some useful insights into the culture and operations of the organisation. 

6  Be prepared for each meeting  

When board members arrive at a meeting without doing their homework, it means they’re not able to contribute fully to the conversation. Ensure you are prepared for every meeting, whether that’s having ticked off your to-do list, read the paperwork, or researched the topics that are up for discussion. And it’s not enough to be physically present, you also need to be mentally present and engaged. If you’re daydreaming or playing wordle during meetings, you’re not bringing much value to the organisation.  

You also need to be prepared to dig deeper and go beyond what is presented to you. For example are you following the board’s rules and workplan? Or, is there anything missing from the agenda that you need to raise? 

7  Follow through on your commitments  

Board members who turn up at each meeting having ‘forgotten’ to do what they promised impact the whole group. Be accountable and reliable: if you say you’re going to do something, get it done.  

It’s hard to push volunteers to complete work; the charity has no leverage to make you achieve everything on your task list. It falls on you to walk the talk, do what you have promised, and cast a positive leadership shadow.  

8  Be selective when recruiting new members 

Recruiting for an unpaid position can mean small charities take whoever they can get. However, ideally you don’t want to simply sign up the first person who expresses an interest. A bad apple will rapidly make the whole board dysfunctional. 

Try using a formal skills matrix to identify areas where the board needs extra expertise, then recruit for those specific skillsets. This has the added benefit of everyone knowing their position on the field, so to speak. For example, on my current Board financial issues come to me; legal issues to the lawyer; HR issues to the HR expert. It creates clear roles and happier board members.  

You can also trial prospective members. Try to find out if they will be a good fit, by inviting them to a meeting to see whether they’re prepared, engaged and passionate.  

9  Use trustee rotation for fresh perspectives  

There should be an exit strategy for board members as it will need fresh blood, the members may want to move on, and it provides an opportunity to disestablish members who aren’t bringing value to the organisation. New members prevent the board from becoming stale, bring in new ideas, and provide extra knowledge and skills.  

Getting it right leads to better outcomes for everyone 

As a trustee I have found my board role extremely rewarding. You can make a big impact on the community by donating your time and professional expertise. 

If you can get it right, being on a well-functioning board will be an enjoyable experience for you and your co-trustees, boosting your personal development and driving better performance and outcomes for a cause you are passionate about.