What messages do volunteers receive as they consider board service? The responsibilities of volunteer leadership should be clearly communicated.

The worst message is offered by nominating committees, "You won’t have to do anything when you get on the board."

Other directors are "voluntold." The technique taps a person who misses a meeting or steps out for a moment, only to return to hear, "We decided you would be good for this responsibility." They seldom decline because of peer pressure.

Accurate messages build a better board.


Be candid about the expectations of board service. Be precise about the hours required and the assignments of additional work.

Directors may be asked to take on extra duties like enroll members, solicit sponsors, visit chapters, contribute to the foundation and give to the PAC.

Be frank about money. What is reimbursed and what is not? Before they sign on, tell them all the financial and in-kind expectations. A director who feels conned is not a good board member.

Build a good board by being honest.

Meeting Practices

The best use of board time is to advance the mission, serve members, protect resources and develop programs.

But what’s the message when the board convenes primarily to listen to reports? The average agenda includes 15 reports and updates. Encourage (or require) advance reading in order to come prepared for meetings and reduce time listening to reports.

Another concern is the handling of "new business." It is nearly always at the end of an agenda after a litany of reports and just before adjournment. Adopt a process for submitting new business before the meeting.

What’s the meeting frequency? Some boards meet monthly whether or not there is a reason.

Directors may perceive meetings as a time for sharing information and socializing. Meetings should be held as needed, and postponed when unnecessary.

Better practices at board meetings support better outcomes.

Strategic Messages

Is the board acting strategically? Do directors focus on mission and have a vision of success? Or do they dive into the weeds to discuss administrative details?

The first question directors should ask is, "Where is our strategic plan? It is our roadmap."

Without a plan directors may mistakenly wait for cues from the chief elected officer. But his or her interests may be for the current year only. Beware, serving as board chair is not about leaving a personal legacy.

Be wary of the association that plans an annual retreat. The annual retreat invites directors to plan only for the next 12 months. Encourage them to have a longer-term vision and impact.

Keep the plan on the board table. As motions are proposed check the strategic plan to see how they "fit." The plan is the guard rails to keep the board on track.

Be leery of directors who feel compelled to offer "new ideas" at every meeting. Too much time is spent chasing rabbits.

Innocent statements start with, "I just have a question." That opens the door to discussions of how to solve the problem. The board should stay focused on setting direction, in turn allowing staff and committees to advance their vision.

A national executive said, "Boards sometimes venture into areas where they don’t belong. For instance committee work and intruding on things that only staff should be doing."

The best boards remain strategic.

Scrutiny as a Message

There is increasing scrutiny on nonprofits.

The media makes inquiries about the purpose for exemption from income tax. Members are asking "Why join?" and expecting ROI for their dues paid.

The IRS examines an annual return to examine how resources are generated and spent. Inform volunteers that associations have changed and must adapt.

The scrutiny on associations should guide the board to focus on their roles and responsibilities.

Preferred Messaging

There are some recurring messages to keep the board on track. Explain them at orientation and hope you hear them often.

  • "We’re in the Weeds" — Let’s get the dialog back to a governance level and leave the details to committees and staff.
  • "Brief is Better" — Few people will read long reports, so keep them to a page and use plenty of bullets.
  • "Boards Govern, Staff Manage" — If the board will set the direction and vision, the staff will do the management.
  • "We Don’t Do Committee Work at the Board Table" — The board should stick to governing. Committees supplement the work of the board. They address the "how" of getting things accomplished.

Be clear about the messages that attract and encourage excellent volunteer experiences.