Getting your board onboard

Image by Mariakray from Pixabay

By Mark G. Auerbach

If you’re a small business, particularly one that is set up as a not-for-profit organization (or a 501c3), you’ll need a board of directors (or trustees or governors). A board’s role is to support your organization’s mission, to advise in their area of expertise, and to serve the organization as one or more of the following:

– A board member is a “doer” who works on behalf of the organization, provides hands-on support, and is an active advocate for the organization and the mission.

– A board member is a “donor” who provides financial support (contributor, subscriber, event sponsor, ticket holder).

– A board member is a “door opener” who can lead the organization to other doers, donors, and door openers.

Good board members understand your organization’s mission, structure and strengths and weaknesses. They must have a passion for the organization’s programs and services, be willing to advocate for the organization, participate as needed with time and money, and help the organization move forward by introducing it to future members and donors.

Legal requirements for a board

The Foundation Group, experts in the field of non-profit development and advancement, say that the IRS requires a not-for-profit organization to have a board of directors of at least three, non-related people. According to their website, a board must meet at least once a year, have a position description for a board member, as defined within the organization’s by-laws and mission statements, and term limits. A board is tasked with setting the strategic direction. It should not be involved in the day-to-day management of the nonprofit.

Allyson Goodwin, director of Development at Maine’s Boothbay Region YMCA and previously chief advancement officer at Northfield Mount Hermon School, has a job description for her board that outlines their responsibilities. “Their primary role is fiduciary, to oversee the financial health and stewardship of the Y,” she says.  “There are governance, development, and buildings and grounds sub-committees.”  The Y’s board members receive orientation and training, are offered the opportunity to train outside the organization, and they participate in board and staff retreats.

I’ve served on several boards of directors and councils during my career, and I’ve worked for several clients providing public relations training to board members..

The board experience that most influenced me was my stint as chair of the Western Massachusetts Chapter of DIFFA, Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, a non-profit that emerged from the design community to build AIDS awareness and fund programs that provided services to people living with HIV/AIDS. We were tasked, as a board, to raise monies through grants and events in Western Massachusetts, and then, to disburse the funds to organizations through a carefully vetted process. The national office of DIFFA provided training for board members, job descriptions, guidelines for events, grants disbursements, and more. All of us knew someone with HIV/AIDS, had lost someone to the illness, and had worked in the design, marketing, and public relations fields. Many of us had never served on a board before our DIFFA experience.

When things go awry

I’m currently helping a new not-for-profit, MOSSO: The Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, build their board and their strategic plan

MOSSO developed when a group of professional musicians from the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, a 77-year-old professional ensemble, saw their organization in limbo, caused to some degree by the pandemic and its resulting financial problems, but more so, by a small, controlling unit of the board, unable to move forward with contract negotiations with the music director and the musicians. After a string of executive directors inexperienced in the nuances of arts administration, and no clear marketing vision, the board, with an interim executive director whose experience was in fund-raising, did not schedule an upcoming season, did not negotiate an agreement with the musicians (who were willing to play and negotiate), and had no concrete plans to move forward. The musicians banded together, formed a non-profit, and self-produced concerts, which built major community support.

As Alexander Svensen, double bass player of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, and a founding member of MOSSO puts it, “If I wanted to dismantle a non-profit organization, it would be quite easy. All you have to do is…nothing. Don’t hire to fill vacancies or even post the positions anywhere. Stop fundraising efforts altogether. Postpone committee meetings indefinitely. Stop responding to employee contract negotiations. Don’t plan or schedule any new activities, performances, open houses, or gallery showings what so ever. Oh, and when you do meet (only because you are legally obligated to) constantly kick the can into some indeterminate future, and blame all lack of progress on some process that has nothing to do with the other. If I wanted to run an organization into the ground, this is exactly what I would do.”

Incidentally, the National Labor Relations Board is bringing the board of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra to trial on December 1.

Advice from experienced board members

During his tenure as President and CEO of New England Business Machine Co, John Sjoberg has served on the boards of The Spirit of Springfield (current chair); Sisters of Providence Health System, Trinity Health of New England, and the Massachusetts Special Olympics. Sjoberg says, “Board members should be engaged and knowledgeable of all of the organization’s operations, to the extent they can hold staff and administrators accountable for their actions and stewardship. They should question, challenge, and examine on a monthly basis, most importantly the financials and prepare and examine 990 forms for compliance. During every action, I always ask, are decisions being made consistent with the mission of the organization and its sustainability? Are we true to who we say we are?”

Sjoberg adds, “The most effective boards are those that are comprised of members with a diverse knowledge base and skill set. Whenever possible, a board should be a reflection of those whom they serve in the community.”

Eric Ort, a development consultant, former member of the board of directors of Goodspeed Musicals (a non-profit regional theatre that sent Man of La Mancha, Shenandoah, Annie, and Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn to Broadway), and most recently, artistic producer and board liaison at TheaterWorks Hartford, defines a board’s role in terms of his Goodspeed experiences. “As you no doubt know, non-profit boards have three essential duties: Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty, and Duty of Obedience. So we were required to be informed and prepared for any meetings, always acting in the best interest of the theater financially and otherwise, and ensuring that the theater was always complying with the law.”

Ort added “On a practical level, we were responsible for serving as enthusiastic advocates for the theater, donating generously to the best of our capacity, bringing others on as ticket buyers, members, subscribers and donors and, in the case of those with special professional skills, giving council on specific areas of need (legal, political, etc).”

So, where do you start when putting together your board? Strategize as to what role you want your board of directors to play. How will they govern? How will they best represent your organization? How will they represent the community your organization works in? Will they play a day-to-day role or an advisory one? Develop a job description for your board. Recruit a diverse group of people with enthusiasm and expertise. Train them, guide them, and steward their best efforts. Make them accountable. They ought to “give, get, or get off.” A board position is not a reward for a major gift, or a name used specifically for name brand recognition.

Organizations like your state’s Small Business Development Center, The Foundation Group, the United Way, and others can often provide you with resources to build and develop a board. With a good board, you can grow. With a bad one, you could stagnate or worse.


Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn. Mark also produces ArtsBeat in print in The Westfield News, on radio for Pioneer Valley Radio and on TV and radio on WCPC15 and 89.5fm/WSKB. He also produces the TV and radio series On The Mark and Athenaeum Spotlight with Guy McLain.

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