Serving on Non-Profit Boards
What motivates non-profit board members to volunteer in this capacity? The common response would be the desire to positively influence and shape the charity's mission and vision. Indeed, serving as a non-profit board member can be a rewarding way of giving back to the community, both personally and professionally. While this role can be a meaningful experience, it may also end up in frustration if one is not a good match with the organisation.
As a non-profit board member, one is expected to exercise independent judgement, provide fiduciary oversight, and act in the best interests of the charity. Hence, it is important to ascertain his/her state of readiness before embarking on the journey. A useful self-assessment tool to aid this process is the Centre for Non-Profit Leadership’s “5Cs of Effective Matching Framework”:
Choosing a suitable cause that you are passionate about is crucial, as it will determine the amount of effort you would be willing to put in for the organisation and by extension, how much the organisation will benefit.
Based on the 2017 Annual Report by the Commissioner of Charities, there are 2,263 registered charities cutting across eight different sectors in Singapore. Among these charities, there will be causes that one can connect to, based on personal interests, beliefs, life experiences or influences by family and friends.
Competencies are sets of measurable behaviours that come from experiences, attitudes, knowledge, values and beliefs. Consider your skills and talents, and how these will complement the existing board or lead to the formation of a well-diversified board that meets the organisation's needs.
Volunteering at the board level gives you the opportunity to participate in strategic conversations and challenges. As such, the role that you assume on the board should help to enhance your professional skills such as strategic planning, critical thinking, effective communication and problem-solving.
To contribute at the optimal level, it is vital to have clear understanding of board member roles. This can be done by reading up on the terms of reference which set out the authority and duties of the Board and each of its board committees. Directors and officers are personally exposed to unlimited financial liability, and the organisation and board of directors share the responsibility for ensuring they have the highest possible level of protection. It is thus important to be familiar with the directors & officers liability insurance. The conflict of interest policy is also important in understanding what constitutes a conflict of interest, and how one can ensure the avoidance of conflicts of interest where necessary.
Be aware of the amount of responsibilities the role entails. Typically, board members will serve a minimum term of two years, and the term of service can vary according to the constitution of the charities. The Charity Code of Governance also stipulates certain guidelines including term limits for specific roles on the board. While it is common for individuals who are going through a career transition to fill the gaps through volunteering, they should be able to continue to fulfill their board responsibilities after taking on new roles.
Regardless of the specific role, being a board member entails teamwork - working well with others, reaching mutual decisions and working out disagreements. On a good board, this means interacting with other board members who collectively have a wealth of experience across different industries. In addition, board members will also be asked to occasionally host major donor events and meet prospects.
Notwithstanding the above, everything all boils down to chemistry at your initial meeting with the President (or his/her representative) of the non-profit organisation. As Swiss psychologist Carl Jung puts it, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” It is the underlying special connection of shared interest towards a certain cause(s) that bonds people together, which will translate into a strong working relationship in the long run.
The journey as a non-profit board member may be challenging, but it can certainly be fulfilling and meaningful. From a community perspective, you become an agent of change to make a positive difference through influencing and shaping the sector. Professionally, your credibility would be enhanced, and network broadened. Finally, you would experience valuable personal growth while connecting with the cause(s) you care about more deeply. Not only will it increase one’s credibility and enhance professional development, it will also promote personal growth through widening perspectives and connecting with the cause more deeply.
Mr Janssen Ong is a Deputy Director of Centre for Non-Profit Leadership (a part of NVPC).