Walking into a board of directors meeting for the first time is typically a humbling experience.
The table is lined with 20-plus people with fancy titles, whose names are recognizable, and who have significantly more knowledge about the particular organization than a new board member can imagine having.
It feels and looks like a club where the secret language revolves around making motions and voting on financial statements.
As the meeting flows through the agenda, seemingly effortless presentations and discussions occur with the same five to seven people asking questions and sharing opinions on every topic. Meetings often end without several board members (new or experienced) saying a word.
Unfortunately, this pattern of quiet observation often continues monthly. But it doesn't have to, nor should it.
According to BoardSource's 2017 “Leading with Intent,” the average size of a board of directors is 15 people.
If only five to seven members are speaking at meetings, fewer than 50% of the board members' opinions are being heard. Combine this with the demographic rates referenced by BoardSource, and there is significant potential for a singular view by a board of directors.
Board members are typically:
• 84% white, 5% African American/black and 3% Asian. Another 5% are Hispanic within any race.
• 52% male, 48% female
• 16% older than 65, 67% between 40 to 64 and 17% younger than 40.
The role of a board of directors is significant. Its members are legally responsibe for ensuring compliance with federal, state and local laws. As a whole, the board hires and holds accountable the organization's CEO; sets strategic direction; adopts policies, procedures, and bylaws; assesses its own performance; and ensures fiduciary oversight and financial management.
The failure of a nonprofit board of directors to do its job can lead to fewer services available to vulnerable populations and the ineffective use of generously donated funds.
As someone who has been fortunate to serve on multiple nonprofit boards, I admit that it took me several years to get over the fear of asking a “dumb” question or being viewed as too passionate or opinionated about decisions I valued.
However, in retrospect, I realize that there truly are not any dumb questions. Time and time again when I ask a question, someone (female and male, experienced board member or new) will tell me after the meeting that they appreciated my asking the question because they didn't know the answer, either.
It's easy to forget that within boardroom walls, all votes are equal and every board member was asked to join for a particular reason. For nonprofit boards, each board member will most likely represent a group of people or profession whose experience and opinion will ensure a well-rounded perspective to board actions.
Ideally, board positions are granted based on knowledge, expertise, access to networks and diversity. So why be quiet?
Being asked to serve on a board is a privilege that comes with the responsibility to understand the organization at a depth that is only gained through active participation and speaking up when clarity and/or broad perspective is needed.
Remaining quiet and inactive is a disservice to the organization, the people who desperately need its services and, most importantly, the people who long for the opportunity to have a seat at the board table but haven't yet been granted that privilege.
I'm not suggesting voicing an opinion on everything or telling the staff how to do their jobs. And I strongly advise thinking before speaking. Sometimes speaking up will feel right; sometimes it won't.
Anyone who knows me knows I don't always get it right. But I speak up and I encourage all board members, especially those of diverse experiences and perspectives, to do the same.
Perfection is not expected. If board tables are filled with people who all look and think the same, organizations won't challenge themselves to continually improve and take bold actions to further their mission.
Instead, they will become stagnant.
Don't let that happen. The more voices heard in a boardroom and on committees, the stronger the organization will be and more people will be served. Speak up.
Ruth Stone is vice chancellor for development at Purdue Fort Wayne.