Denver Bar Association
December 2004
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Baffled by Boards?

by Diane Hartman

How to be an Effective Board Member

A friend, let’s call her Lucy, who had never served on a board, was elected to one and was excited at her new venture. At the first meeting, she immediately noticed that the board table had several buckets on it to catch rainwater than came in through the shabby roof. Yikes, she thought, what have I gotten myself into?? Will I be liable for repairing the roof? What if it falls in and someone gets hurt? She was too embarrassed to ask about the details. After a few meetings, she still didn’t know what her role should be, and mostly she sat quietly. Two years later, she felt like she had never quite "gotten it" and finally resigned.

Keys to Making the Most of
Your Time on a Board:

• Find your passion
• Know your limits and
your strengths
• Know what’s expected
of you
• Ask questions
• Have a sense of humor

Lots of people want to be on boards "for lots of reasons. Sometimes it’s resume enhancing (bad idea). Sometimes it’s giving back to the community in an area you know something about (much better). Certainly, attorneys are in big demand to be on boards.

We talked about what prospective board members should know with Alice Kelly, wife of Terry Kelly, who has a 30-year history of community involvement that’s hard to match.

A former schoolteacher and mom of three, Alice has been deeply involved with the League of Women Voters, including chairing the Education Committee before schools in Denver were desegregated and when that group did so much good work, and she later was president. Mayor Federico Peña appointed her to a board concerning the redevelopment of Stapleton, as did Mayors Webb and Hickenlooper. She’s worked for political groups and has also worked on the boards of Warren Village, City Park Alliance, for the Girl and Boy Scouts, for 25 years in her church and "all the school stuff, PTA, etc." The list goes on and on. Lately, she’s been going to Regis University and learning about non-profit management from the perspective of an executive director rather than board member.

Alice would have taken my friend Lucy out for some coffee and a long talk. Too many people sign up for boards and you never see them again. Even if they show up for meetings, they sometimes balk at joining committees. If Lucy ever considers joining a board again, Alice wants her to ponder these questions:

1. Have you found out what the mission of the organization is, if you don’t already know?

2. What time or other commitments do they want from you?

3. How much staff is there? Will you have help with projects or is it a real working board where board members do it all?

4. Very important: How much money will you be expected to donate? ("You have to pretty much understand that boards require a personal financial commitment. When they go for grants, one question is always asked: what percent of your board has made a financial commitment?")

5. Are you on other boards? Don’t stretch yourself too thin. Don’t sign up and not show up—it’s obvious when someone is trying to capitalize by saying they’re on a board. That’s a quick way to lose respect from other volunteers. They’ll write you off as "she never shows up," and the word will get out.

6. What skills and expertise can you offer the non-profit? What will they expect from you?

After you consider the specific organization whose leadership you’re thinking of joining, Alice suggests a little personal inventory to see if you fit them. Do you have the right qualities to be a good board member?

Think about these:

• Are you committed to the organization and its mission?

• Do you have common sense and good judgment ("Often that’s lacking.")?

• How’s your respect for a group process, where people work together to get a particular task finished?

• Are you centered with self-awareness and an acceptance of yourself and your special abilities and skills?

• Do you have a keen desire to learn about the organization, to get out of your rut and grow?

• Most critical, she said, is do you have a sense of humor? "Sometimes you wonder why you’re here when you get so busy. You have to step back, smile, and remember why you committed."

If you’ve still thinking this is a good idea and you’ve never been on a board, where do you start?

"First of all, find your passion." She suggests Metro Volunteers as a good place to start to find out about what types of places need help and what you would enjoy.

"Metro Volunteers has a list of organizations that have been through their process. They put their board members through a training about what to expect, then put prospective members in a board bank."

What does Alice get out of all the work she does?

"It’s a total growing experience. I learn a ton about myself, my community and about the people and the mission. Terry and I have always been fortunate to be able to give back to our community. I feel very strongly that lots of wonderful nonprofits are doing incredible work. I always get more out of whatever I do than I put into it."

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