Serving on a non-profit board can be one of the most rewarding activities a person can undertake. However, there are pitfalls. Following are five common mistakes that many people make when joining a non-profit Board of Directors. These mistakes can be costly to the Board member and to the organization.

  1. Failure to understand all of the functions of the Board. Some first-time Board members have a romantic view of what it means to serve on a Board, perhaps thinking that it is all about approving requests from the organization for ideas and attending fundraising events. Boards of Directors have a number of responsibilities. They are responsible for making sure the organization is financially sound, in compliance with regulations, that the chief executive is accountable and performing, that a strategic plan is in place and meeting milestones, and that Board meetings are run effectively and efficiently. The work can be tedious, and if Board members drop the ball, the entire organization can fall prey to scandals or financial ruin. It is important that Board members are educated about all of their responsibilities, and have the skills to contribute to the overall functioning of the Board.
  2. Joining for status and not carrying one’s weight. Board members are generally expected to contribute time, skills, connections, and/or money (either their own, or via fund raising) to the non-profit. Some people join Boards specifically to pad their resume or market their businesses. While this might be an outcome of serving on a Board, Board members should join a Board only if they are willing to contribute and have an impact. Before joining, they should be clear about what is expected of them – and the organization should be up front and clear in setting expectations.
  3. Overstepping bounds. Board members are stewards of the organization, not managers. They should not break the chain of command and talk to employees without express permission from the executive director. Similarly, a Board member should never speak to the media without express permission from the organization.
  4. Jumping right in with answers before taking time to listen and learn. Most Board members already have a track record of achievement in their careers. It is natural for them to come with experience and answers. However, non-profit organizations – like any organization – have their own history and culture. Board members need to take time to listen and learn before jumping in with what might seem to be obvious answers. Doing otherwise risks alienating fellow Board members who have been with the organization for a longer time.
  5. Poor collaboration and teamwork skills. Boards of Directors are made up of volunteers from different walks of life. They are often politically charged, sensitive groups. It takes collaboration skills and savvy to communicate ideas and influence others on a Board. Ramming ideas through is not the way to get things done, although some strong-willed executives forget that this is the case and can offend other members of the Board. Balance results and relationships when working with fellow Board members; think of your tenure on the Board as a marathon and not a sprint.