If you’re asked to join the board of a nonprofit, you should know what to expect, and what your roles and responsibilities will be. There will be some variation depending on the industry and size of the organization, and what committees you serve on, but there are some fundamental responsibilities that you should be prepared for.

The ultimate goal of the board is to guide the organization towards meeting its mission. This includes oversight of management, programs, and the organization’s finances, and making sure each is being used effectively. This work is grounded in 3 legal duties of board members, which include:

  • Duty of Care: You’re expected to be actively involved in making decisions for the organization, and to use good judgment in doing so.
  • Duty of Loyalty: You must put the interests of the organization before your own personal and business interests. You need to do what’s best for the organization.
  • Duty of Obedience: You’re responsible for making sure the organization follows all applicable laws and adheres to its mission. This also includes following your articles of incorporation and bylaws, and staying true to your tax-exempt purpose.

Your ongoing tasks will fall into 3 categories – management oversight, program oversight, and financial oversight.

Management Oversight

  • Define the mission of the organization, and make sure it is operating in accordance with that mission, and pursuing the purpose for which it received tax-exempt status.
  • Select a chief executive that will manage and lead the organization well, further its mission, and raise its public standing.
  • Support the chief executive and evaluate his/her performance. This also includes annually evaluating and setting his/her pay. Make sure he/she has the resources and professional support necessary to do the job well.
  • Ensure legal and ethical integrity. Develop and enforce policies and procedures for the organization that set guardrails for appropriate behavior.
  • Build and maintain a skilled board. Bring on members who are knowledgeable about your mission, goals, and industry, and have the skillset to effectively oversee your organization.

Program Oversight

  • Monitor programs and services. Put into place programs that further your mission and ensure that management and staff are running the programs effectively.
  • Evaluate potential new programs and if or when to wind down unsuccessful or obsolete programs.

Financial Oversight

  • Set an annual budget. Review financial activity throughout the year and evaluate it against the budget.
  • Ensure that proper financial controls and policies are in place to protect the assets of the organization.
  • Secure adequate financial resources. This may include fundraising, pursuing contracts and grants for the organization, or making sure the services you offer to the public bring in sufficient revenue to fund your work.

This is the general work of the board of directors. You may have additional responsibilities if you’re an officer – president, secretary, or treasurer – or if you’re on a committee, such as the finance committee or governance committee, that oversees a specific aspect of the organization. I will go into more detail about these in coming weeks. BoardSource and the National Council for Nonprofits have additional resources to inform the work of board members.