Do nonprofit board members sit or serve?
Words matter. Words communicate thoughts. Thoughts fashion ideas. Ideas lead to action....or in this case perhaps, the wrong word leads to inaction.
Consider nonprofit boards, do members sit on the board or do they serve on it?
What’s the difference?
For starters, the phrase sitting on a board actually implies passivity.
Examine the actual definition of the word sit. “To rest the body supported by the buttocks or thighs; be seated”. “To place oneself in position for an artist, photographer, etc: to sit for a portrait”. “To remain quiet or inactive.” These are all passive in nature and can be readily applied to how some people approach their involvement on boards.
In the literal sense, sitting on a board conveys the idea of simply showing up at the appointed time and passively sitting through the board meeting and only commenting when called upon or voting when required.
Simply sitting on a board is most often a lose-lose-lose situation.
- A loss for the organization as they don’t tap into the gifts, talents, passions, and abilities of their board members.
- A loss for the board members as they feel uninspired, underutilized, and untapped as a resource, and ultimately it’s
- A loss for community the organization exists to serve as boards that spend their time sitting rarely advance the organization’s mission and lead the organization to accomplish great things for the community and clients they exist to serve.
Contrast this with the idea of serving on a board. Turning again to Dictionary.com for help, like sit, serve is also a verb, but it’s active. “To act as a servant.” “To wait on table, as a waiter.” “To render assistance; be of use; help.” “To go through a term of service; do duty as a soldier, sailor, senator, juror, etc.”
In the literal sense, serving on a board implies action. I love that the first definition provided is to act as a servant. Board members are called as servant-leaders. First and foremost, they are servants to the organization’s mission and the community and clients that organization serves.
They are leaders because board service is leadership. It’s a matter of leading the organization forward to fulfill its vision and accomplish its mission. To serve on a board is to render assistance , be of use and help. This means bringing your best ideas to the board table (even if you don’t meet in an actual boardroom). To serve on a board also means to faithfully discharge your duties as a board member. It’s fully active and the involvement continues after the board meeting and beyond the boardroom.
Serving on a board is a win-win-win situation.
- It’s a win for the organization as they benefit from tapping into the gifts, talents, passions, and abilities of their board members. Consequently, they access insights and ideas that result in action and achievement.
- It’s a win for the board members as they make meaningful contributions to the organization and the communities and clients it serves. They see the fruit of their labors and are energized as a result, and ultimately,
- It’s a win for the community and clients served because the organization is strategically moving the mission forward and seeing the vision become a reality. More mission is happening which generates more excitement and enthusiasm and there’s a buzz in the atmosphere.
Making the shift.
If you’re a current board member, ask yourself, am I sitting or am I serving?
If you’re sitting, how can you begin serving? If the organization doesn’t support board members actively serving, then perhaps you should engage in conversations with the leaders and encourage them to raise the bar for the board. If they refuse, find another organization that you are passionate about and begin serving there.
If you’re a board officer, conside these questions:,
Am I sitting or am I serving as an officer?
Do we allow board members to sit or encourage them to serve?
Are we doing the bare minimum to get by or are we continually challenging our board to do and be more?
If you’re recruiting others to join the board (either as a board member or the senior staff), are you asking prospective board members to sit or serve?
What understanding or expectations do we create for our board members?
Are we creating opportunities for active and meaningful engagement or do we promote passivity?
Words do indeed matter.
Perhaps board members are sitting because that’s what they were asked to do or the expectation that was created. Explore ways to be more intentional when approaching prospective board members and be sure to create proper expectations up-front. Remember, it’s called board service for a reason -- it’s meant to be active.
A shout out to Doug Fountain who proudly serves on the board of the Anna Crawford Center and inspired this post. Just yesterday, I was in a meeting with Doug where he said, “I was asked to sit on the board, however I’ve done very little sitting and a whole lot of serving.”
He’s loving it, the organization is loving it and the community is benefitting from it. That’s the way it oughta be.