Board Roles and Responsibilities
Board members are the fiduciaries who steer the organization towards a sustainable future by adopting sound, ethical, and legal governance and financial management policies, as well as making sure the nonprofit has adequate resources to advance its mission.
One of the most important responsibilities for many boards is to hire and set the compensation of a talented CEO/executive director to run the day-to-day management activities of the organization. When there are paid staff in place, rather than steer the boat by managing day-to-day operations, board members provide foresight, oversight, and insight: think of them as up in the crow's nest scanning the horizon for signs of storms or rainbows to explore, perhaps with a pot of gold at the end! Yes, board members - your role as stewards of the nonprofits DOES involve fundraising. And...at the National Council of Nonprofits we are big promoters of the important role board members play as advocates for the nonprofit's mission.
- Did you know? The vast majority of board members for charitable nonprofits serve as volunteers without any compensation.
What’s the role of the board of directors of a nonprofit corporation? Just as for any corporation, including nonprofit corporations, the board of directors have three primary legal duties known as the “duty of care,” “duty of loyalty,” and “duty of obedience.”
- Read about legal duties of board members (GrantSpace)
- What every nonprofit board member should know (Adler & Colvin)
- Roles and responsibilities of the first board of directors: VIDEO (NEO Law Group)
In sum, these legal duties require that nonprofit board members:
- Take care of the nonprofit by ensuring prudent use of all assets, including facility, people, and good will; and provide oversight for all activities that advance the nonprofit’s effectiveness and sustainability. (legal "Duty of due care")
- Make decisions in the best interest of the nonprofit corporation; not in his or her self-interest. (legal "Duty of loyalty")
- Ensure that the nonprofit obeys applicable laws and acts in accordance with ethical practices; that the nonprofit adheres to its stated corporate purposes, and that its activities advance its mission. (legal "Duty of obedience")
Trends for boards to watch
- 2015 Trends to Watch (National Council of Nonprofits)
- Benchmarks for boards: Leading With Intent and Nonprofit Governance Index 2010 and 2012 (BoardSource)
- Annual data on the financial health of nonprofits that may interest boards are available from the State of the Sector survey (Nonprofit Finance Fund)
- Do your board members appreciate their role as advocates to help advance the mission? Stand for your Mission
- Do your board members understand the importance of outcomes and performance measurement? Help board members take the Leap of Reason.
- Help your board members keep up to date with trends and emerging issues by subscribing to Nonprofit Advocacy Matters and Nonprofit Knowledge Matters, two free e-newsletters (National Council of Nonprofits)
- Start your new board members off on the right foot with an orientation program that introduces them to the basic roles and responsibilities of serving as a nonprofit board member. Don't forget to include those special issues that pertain specifically to your nonprofit's mission, plus information on: governance policies (so that all board members are reminded about their legal and fiduciary duties); accountability practices (such as the need to disclose conflicts of interest); and the responsibility to hire, review the executive director's performance, and approve annual compensation.
- When board members are recruited, consider using a board member contract to ensure that everyone's on the same page. (Blue Avocado)
- Job descriptions can help board members feel comfortable in their roles as officers of a nonprofit. Sample job descriptions for Chair of the Board, Secretary, and Treasurer. (BoardSource and Bridgespan)
- Help board members Stand for Your Mission, with this discussion guide. (BoardSource)
- Yes, the role of board members DOES include helping to raise money for the nonprofit! Board members and personal contributions (BoardSource and Bridgespan)
- Consider using a consent agenda as a way of saving time during meetings, and focusing the board’s work on high priority issues that benefit most from discussion and discernment. Many governance gurus suggest putting the most important item on the agenda first – in order to leave enough time for full discussion.
- Evaluating the performance of the executive director is one of the most-likely-to-be-avoided but most important roles that a board can play in supporting a nonprofit’s sustainability. (Minnesota Council of Nonprofits)
- Sample CEO/executive director evaluation form (Blue Avocado)
- Board members are always curious, and sometimes surprised to learn that they can – in limited circumstances – be personally liable for a nonprofit’s financial responsibility. One notable circumstance is for failure to pay withholding taxes on an employee’s wages.
- Board members may also be curious about insurance policies that cover their volunteer service. Directors and officers liability insurance for nonprofits doesn’t only cover board members and officers; it also generally covers the CEO and other staff as well as the nonprofit’s corporate actions.
- The Nonprofit Risk Management Center offers many resources, including free online tutorials that are useful to introduce board members to insurance for nonprofits and risk management.
Education for Board Members
Not everyone is familiar with the roles and responsibilities of board members for a charitable nonprofit and fortunately educational programs for board members abound. The harder issue is asking volunteers to take time to learn about their role and grasp what makes a great board member. Luckily there are watch-from-your-computer options, although in-person, and especially peer-to-peer programs, are often the most useful – and fun.
- Many state associations of nonprofits offer special programs for board members, whether by webinars, or in-person, on governance topics, including basic board roles and responsibilities.
- Other community-based sources for board education include: local volunteer centers, community foundations, and university/college nonprofit management programs.
- Another local option is to engage a consultant with expertise in nonprofit management to work directly with the board members of your nonprofit.
- A pro bono option may be available too: consider asking the board chair of another nonprofit to give a presentation to your nonprofit’s board. Peer-to-peer learning is powerful!
- On a national level, BoardSource is a leading authority on board governance issues, and offers numerous publications, as well as a national leadership forum, webinars, and a blog.
- Updated 10 Basic Roles of Nonprofit Board Members (BoardSource)
- Encourage board members to be advocates: Stand For Your Mission
- Read about important policy issues that impact all charitable nonprofits.
- Checklist to minimize board liability (ManagementHelp.org)
- Become a member of your state association of nonprofits!
- Board basics is a free online interactive tool, that you can share with your board at a board meeting, offers just what is promised: the basics about serving on a nonprofit board. (CompassPoint)
- How to be a great board member (National Council of Nonprofits)
- Board basics (Minnesota Council of Nonprofits)
- FAQs about boards (Nonprofit Association of Oregon)
- Building your nonprofit’s board (Nolo)
- The Nonprofit Board’s Role in HR (Blue Avocado)
- Outline of board roles and responsibilities (Hurwit & Associates)
- Are you getting the most out of meetings? (National Council of Nonprofits)
- Sample consent agenda compared to a regular agenda
- 12 ways to liven up your board meetings and your board (Gail Perry)
- Gamify your board retreat with a Board Member Bingo game.
- Discussion guide to help board members understand their role as advocates (Stand for Your Mission)
- 7 Secrets for Successful Board Meetings (Wild Apricot)
- Evaluating the Executive Director: Your role as a board member (First Nonprofit Foundation)
- Board Fundamentals: Understanding Board Roles in Nonprofit Governance (BoardSource).
- Meeting and exceeding expectations: A guide to successful nonprofit board meetings (BoardSource)
- Bibliography of resources on nonprofit boards (Foundation Center)
- Sample Code of Conduct for board members (National Council of Nonprofits)
- Board’s role in independent audits (National Council of Nonprofits)
- All about ex-officio board members (BoardSource)
Resources for all-volunteer boards
- All Hands on Board: The Board of Directors in All-Volunteer organizations (Blue Avocado)
- Boards of All-Volunteer Organizations (Blue Avocado)
- Treasurers of All-Volunteer Organizations: Eight Key Responsibilities (Blue Avocado)
- Strategic Boards in All-volunteer organizations (Charity Channel)
Explanations of nonprofit board roles and responsibilities by state attorneys general, state charity officials, and representative resources from some state associations of nonprofits