Captioning–Press (Special Page)

"Our BoardAssist candidates have been amazing additions to our Board of Directors."

Executive Director, Good Shepherd Services.
Credit: Volunteers of America
helping individuals and families in need

How to avoid being solely an ATM machine on the nonprofit board on which you serve

Talking about money is a conversation that most nonprofits and board candidates would rather avoid and hence, often do.  Many nonprofit leaders feel uncomfortable talking about money. It seems impolite. But nonprofits need money, we all know that. What you should know before you join a board is exactly how much money your particular potential board expects from you so there are no unexpected surprises when the basket is passed around year-end.

How to avoid being solely an ATM machine on the nonprofit board on which you serve

Three good rules to follow:

Be careful about joining boards  that refuse to lock in a firm give/get number (the amount you personally give plus “get” from others).  Those boards may be concerned that you will be more generous without a pre-set number. That has not been what we have seen in our experience working with hundreds of nonprofits around the globe.  To the contrary, we find when a candidate joins a board, if the Executive Director actively engages that board member, he or she will view the financial commitment they made prior to joining the board as a floor for giving, and not a ceiling.

Some boards have the issue of board members with vastly different abilities to generate capital. We appreciate that challenge and in those cases suggest board candidates work with their board to formulate a clear number based on what other board members in similar financial situations are committing. 

Be leery of joining a board where you are asked to give something “personally significant” each year.  One common suggestion from boards that do not want to set a financial commitment number will be for the board to suggest board members generate something that is personally significant to you. (Or the board may suggest you commit that this charity be one of your top three charitable recipients.) But this may become a problem if your idea of “personally significant” differs from what the rest of the board thinks is significant. The difference between what you earn and what the rest of the board earns can be quite large for some board members and can raise unrealistic expectations about what you will generate financially.

Example: Alexa joined a board where she was asked to commit “something personally significant.” Alexa was the only member of the board who earned more than $60,000 a year. In fact she earned a little over a million dollars a year. At the end of the year when the budget gap was roughly $100,000, the rest of the board wanted Alexa to make up the difference. The rest of the board were generating about $3,000 each and thought that at a minimum Alexa should generate $50,000, or 5% of her income. Alexa felt she had been quite generous donating $30,000, or ten times more than anyone else on the board. 

Make sure the financial commitment expected of you is a comprehensive number.  Many people join a board thinking they have a firm understanding of what is expected of them only to find out a few months later that the $5000 a year commitment they made to their board did not include the donation that was expected to the capital campaign…or selling journal ads to the benefit…or the expectation that every board member would buy two tables at the annual benefit.  For arts organizations, how many tickets do you need to purchase to every performance or opening?  What is the true and fully comprehensive number expected of board members?

Finally, always ask a nonprofit to put in writing what financial commitment is expected from board members.  Not surprisingly, a year after a candidate has joined a nonprofit board, it may be hard for everyone to remember what was discussed.  Having a written reminder of everyone’s expectations can go a long way to avoiding hurt feelings.

BoardAssist’s bottom line:  serving on a nonprofit board can be tremendously rewarding.  We believe a board member’s primary gift should always be the intellectual capital, and not just financial capital, they add to their board.  Taking the easy steps outline above will go a long way to ensuring that.

For a full discussion of all the factors to consider before joining a nonprofit board, download BoardAssist’s book Giving Back. Want to know how much money people really give on nonprofit boards?  Read our 2017 Report on Nonprofit Giving. Join a board!