Officers and Board Positions
Being asked to serve on a board can be flattering, and it can be an incredible opportunity to learn more about leadership. However, sitting on a board is a huge responsibility, far beyond what most volunteers realize or expect. Be sure you understand what you are agreeing to do and think carefully before accepting.
What Boards Are
A board can be many things, depending on the organization. One thing that always holds true is that a board is a form of oversight. The organization may have officers that have specific tasks, and it may even have paid staff. The board is there to ensure that the group stays true to its mission and that it operates in a way consistent with its own principles and any applicable laws.
An organization expects volunteers to help. When you are on a board or acting as an officer, the expectations may change radically. Someone may have to represent the organization to the press, to work on promoting the group, and, often most important, to raise money. Look at large cultural institutions and you'll see that the board members are often well-placed to find donors and help establish important relationships with businesses, government, and other organizations.
Will I be expected to donate my own money?
Board members of volunteer organizations generally do donate money to the organization. But the group will mainly expect you to use social and business connections to introduce the organization to influential people who could become significant donors.
Organizations need such help, and there is nothing wrong with asking board members to provide it. However, you need to understand exactly what you are getting yourself into. Talk to current and, if possible, prior members of the board. Be certain you understand all the requirements, whether formally stated or implicitly understood.
There are many examples of organizations in which the board or officers come from the ranks of volunteers, and then become distant. It's all too easy to acquire an elitist attitude. This manifests itself in a variety of ways. Among these are the mistakes of assuming that only the board might have a sense of what the organization needs, assuming that you're too busy to do the “grunt work” provided by other members, and mainly associating only with other members of the board.
This is a good way to unlearn any positive lesson of leadership and to embody a set of habits that will make you incapable of leading anyone. If you do find yourself in an official position, know that it means time in addition to ordinary volunteering, and not a substitution for it. Be sure you continue working with others on the everyday tasks that need doing to keep from thinking that you're too important to do so.
Understanding the Organization
There is one level of understanding an organization that a volunteer needs and another level that an officer might require. But a board member had best become immersed in the organization. That will include reading the bylaws and becoming familiar with how the group is supposed to work. To allow the group to step outside of the bylaws is to invite tossing them out the window; if you don't need to pay attention to the rules for one issue, why should you for another?
Bylaws may seem a form of petty officiousness, but they are actually like the rules of a card game. If you change the rules, the game no longer exists. Although it may seem like needless bureaucracy, you must become a defender of the bylaws as they exist at any given time to make sure that the organization has proper continuance.
As a board member, depending on the form of organization and the geographic area in which it exists, you may have specific responsibilities under the law. That might include fiscal responsibility, duties to ensure that certain types of meetings take place, or obligations to produce certain public records of activities. The board might have to engage legal and accounting professionals to certify the group's proper operations, and it might have responsibility for hiring and firing paid staff.