Written by Kesha Brown
In 2015, I developed an interest in board service while I was working as a Human Resources Generalist. I think this was a direct result of my experience from my previous role as a Human Resources Manager at BHRAGS Home Care Corp. By the end of my tenure, after six years of unconditional support to one another, the relationship with my supervisor that I cultivated and loved so much was deteriorating. I don’t know what happened, but it hurt and it bothered me so much, yet there was nothing I could’ve done to change it. Believe me, I tried.
I won’t get into all of the drama that was happening, but it was quite serious. It was so serious that I had to report certain activities to the Board of Directors, including the Board President.
Rewind to six years earlier, as the only HR Director within the 800+ staffed company, I reported directly to the Executive Director and the Board of Directors, so I was quite familiar with the role the board played within the organization and how their support affected the sustainability of the organization as they could step in to manage various issues including personnel.
Late 2014 to early 2015, I needed their help because I exhausted all options to handle my deteriorating relationship with my boss. They were extremely supportive in listening and mediating the situation,which I sincerely appreciated. During this process, I decided that it was also time for me to look for a new job. In August 2015, I found one. After accepting this opportunity, something clicked. Up until leaving BHRAGS and locating my new role, the entire board remained in contact with me, and, still to this day, I am still in touch with all of them. The sincere support they showed me while at BHRAGS and beyond was the reason I think I fell in love with board service.
I realized serving as a board member was something that interested me a lot because I grew up in an entrepreneurial household, so I always had a burning desire to oversee a company. As an HR professional, I am a people advocate, I believe in the power of service, and I am also obsessed with learning and giving back to the community, so I thought this would be the perfect step to take my career to the next level.
In 2015 and early 2016, I began applying to various board member opportunities and received several hits, but I did not pursue them because I realized I was just applying to any board member opportunity that I could find and not giving much attention to the mission of the organization. The organizations did not have missions that spoke to my soul, so I lost interest in my search and dropped the ball. At that time in my life, I was also dealing with a load of personal issues. I buried my daughter’s father. I ended a seven-year-long relationship with my boyfriend, my father was not healthy, and my mom began her journey into alcoholism, so I was a total mess. I was in no shape to serve on a board. It was so hard for me to function day-to-day at work, play the role of a mother, and take care of myself. It was one of the lowest periods in my life.
Fast forward to March 24, 2017, I handed in my resignation letter for my Human Resources Generalist role. After almost two years on the job, I decided to walk away and commit to becoming a full time entrepreneur. During this time, I also wanted to revisit my passion for board service. On June 19, 2017, while on www.idealist.org, I saw an opportunity for a board member role at Tomorrow’s Leaders NYC. I read about the organization, visited the website, did some more research online, and determined that this was a great organization and I must apply. I submitted my application. It would take two weeks before I heard back from them. During that time, I prayed but I also carried on with my life: I officially launched my business on July 17, 2017, so I was focused on getting that up andrunning.
On, June 29, 2017, I received an email from Tomorrow’s Leaders NYC that said they were interested in conducting a phone interview. I was overwhelmed with emotions. I was shocked, excited, and so very grateful just for the invitation. On July 5, 2017, I had my phone interview with the Executive Director, affectionately known as Toyin, and subsequently with the board member, Marques Zak. I then received an email invitation for an in-person meeting. It was during my in-person interview with former board member, Don Jacques, and Toyin at Tomorrow’s Leaders NYC HQ at IS 218 when I literally fell in love with the organization. I have never in my life witnessed so much passion displayed about a service/mission offered to the community that helps young students. The two of them melted my heart. I had to be a part of the organization no matter what.
There was something special that happened during that moment, I still can’t explain it. I left there and went home, and immediately sent them a long thank you email explaining that while I care about the final decision of being appointed, I am willing to volunteer my time in the event that I am not selected as a candidate. After sending the email, I also got on my knees and prayed a whole lot and told God “if you allow this door to open, I will make you proud” He did.And I have kept my word to him.
On October 9, 2017, I was appointed a board member. I have to say,it was extremely emotional for me because I did not have the typical credentials of a board member, which includes a post graduate degree and/or a track record of working for a fortune 500 company,so it was quite an accomplishment to have received the position with only a High School Diploma and work experience with non-profit organizations. I guess my combined 20+ years of corporate America and HR experience helped. Would you believe that this was the only board member application I completed during that year? I guess it was truly meant to be.
Here are the five pillars needed to be a successful board member based on my experience.
What I have learned in my almost two years of board service is that it is imperative to evaluate if you have the required leadership acumen to serve as a board member. The essence of your role is leadership. You are responsible for overseeing the Executive Directors performance and the sustainability of the organization. You do not need to be a board chair for this rule to apply. Serving on a board requires you to be able to lead and make decisions when there is a lack of comradery, chemistry, leadership, or proactiveness amongst your team. You need to be able to survive in environments that require self–directed traits, be comfortable with the unknown, and possess a roll-up-your-sleeves, and can-do attitude because sometimes you have to step in to wear multiples hats especially on a non-profit board where there is a lack of funds, staff, and resources. A lot of folks believe that serving on a board just involves attending quarterly meetings, paying board dues, and building their network. While this is all true, there is also a very challenging side. Are you mentally strong enough to execute your responsibilities when you are not seeing eye-to-eye with other board members? Will you let the organization suffer because of your ego? Or will you step up to execute as a one-man army? Will you continue to be aggressive with raising funds for the organization to survive, or will you loose interest because no one is on your side? Can you take the initiative for a project if the other board members are playing golf on the weekends? Taking calls to action when it is just you in your corner takes strong leadership skills. Please evaluate if you posses this quality before stepping into a board role.
Think about all the times you worked together on a team. You may want to reflect on memories from when you were in college or maybe at an office where you worked with your colleagues on a project. How did you handle disagreements? Did you throw in the towel, or were you still able to commit to the project and execute and complete it effortlessly? Were you able to rally your teammates around your vision to execute the assigned project? Dysfunctional teams delay an organization’s growth and are, frankly, really frustrating to be a part of. Dysfunction often leads to increased personal stress, disengagement, and a breeding ground for a toxic board and company culture. While it may be, ultimately, the responsibility of the board chair to deal with the root causes of team dysfunction, you may be on a board where a chair does nothing to resolve the dysfunction. It is your job as a board member to deal with the dysfunction head on. You must be self-aware, know yourself and the role you play best, and learn what you bring to the team. Fine-tune how you carry your own power and influence. Recognize your gifts, skills, and capacities, and use them accordingly. Reflect on your role. You must know what good teams look like, and build on that with your team members. Frankly, you need to be able to step up when no one else is. That may mean calling a meeting to address all the dysfunctional issues. Please assess how well you work with teams before moving forward in this role.
After all, you are the ambassador of the organization. Excellent people skills are a must! I have been developing my people skills for 18 years from when I started my entrepreneurial journey and through navigating various roles throughout my career. This is my strongest skill. If you don’t have strong people skills, how will you network on behalf of the organization? How will you recruit other board members? How will you ask people for money to raise funds? How will you effectively attend meetings with partners, vendors, and the community your organization serves? How will you navigate functions that aid in the sustainability of the organization? How will you engage with your staff and the population you serve? How will you interact with other board members and aid in building team rapport? During my tenure, I have been involved in so many areas of the organization which require me to display my strong people skills. I have attended all staff meetings and meetings with our school partners, funders, students’, student’s parents, and vendors. I have attended various events on behalf of the organization, and the list goes on. All these occasions require me to be able to communicate with people on a level that displays professionalism, poise, humor,and good will. It also required me to have thick skin in situations where I may face rejection such as when asking people for money. They may not always say yes, so will I be nasty because of that? Absolutely not. Having people skills helps you to deal with situations like that accordingly. I would recommend asking your peers to assess how strong your interpersonal skills are before stepping into this role.
When I applied to board member roles several years back, I never even considered the fact that I would need to understand how a business operates before submitting my applications, even though I had several years of entrepreneurial experience. It was not until I stepped into my role that I realized how important knowing the fundamentals of operations/administration, human resources, finance, and non-profit compliance regulations are. These are all the major areas important to a non-profit business. To mitigate risks and reduce costly expenses, it is essential to make sure your human resources and payroll policies and procedures are up to par and that the insurance policies for Directors, Officers, and all other insurance policies are in place. It is also essential to maintain accurate records of business activities, including filing meeting minutes. It is also helpful to know how to effectively deal with staffing issues and accounting activities, including monitoring expense reports and financial statements, reviewing balance sheets, meeting IRS regulatory requirements, and facilitating activities to meet compliance. While you can learn most of these things right away, it would be best to have a basic understanding so that you are equipped to make sound and quick decisions once you step in.
Most board member roles require you to donate 10 to 20 hours of your time monthly. This time will utilize your industry-related skills to complete projects and help the organization thrive, which helps in reducing staffing costs for the organization. If you are at a level in your career where you don’t have time to donate, be realistic with yourself and do not commit to this role. Your lack of availability will have a negative impact on the success of the organization, and you will leave a heavy burden on your fellow board members to pick up your responsibilities. You must have a fervent desire to help the organization’s beneficiaries and advance the organization’s mission which will take countless hours of your time.
Although I have shared some serious aspects of serving as a board member. There is also a very rewarding side to which I enjoy the most and that is knowing that after all of your hours of hard work and dedication, you get to witness the rewards of your commitment and see the execution of the organization’s mission which changes lives everyday.
I hope this article was helpful in helping you identify if you have what it takes to serve as a non-profit board member. Cheers!