The following is an interview between Jonathan Foster, President and CEO of Angeles Wealth Management and Marta Gazzera Ferro, Senior Director of Angeles Wealth Management and Founder and President of Starfish Impact Inc., a consulting firm specializing in family philanthropic advisory services, corporate social responsibility and nonprofit management consulting.
Jonathan Foster (JF): Marta, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today about something that is near and dear to both of our hearts. You and I have served on a number of nonprofit boards over the years and we know first-hand how rewarding this experience can be. That being said there are many challenges and considerations to also to be mindful of when you take on such a responsibility. I was hoping that you, as someone who has advised many nonprofits and nonprofit boards through your company, Starfish Impact, could share some insights with us on board best practices, and things individuals should consider if they are looking to join a nonprofit board.
Marta Ferro (MF): Thanks for asking, Jon! I love working with boards and also serving on them myself. I just recently joined two new boards in the past year—The Liberty Hill Foundation and my son’s school board, Westland School.
Joining a nonprofit board is one of the most effective ways to fulfill your philanthropic goals. Of course, the primary reason to serve on a nonprofit board is that you want to make the world a better place and you care deeply about the mission of the organization. But, serving on a board and bringing your knowledge, energy and expertise to the table is something that can not only benefit the organization but also you as well.
Many reputable and leading nonprofits have seasoned business leaders serving on their boards. It is a great place to build authentic relationships with peers. For those starting out in their careers, or perhaps wanting to get to the next level, serving as a nonprofit board member gives you the chance to meet, network and work side-by-side with community and business leaders. I love working with companies and firms who care enough about their employees and also their community, to prioritize supporting their team’s thoughtful board membership as part of their business and social impact culture.
For me personally, I have met and forged relationships with some of my closest friends and colleagues through board service. I love looking back at how we met and the memories of our time working side-by-side for the benefit of an organization and community. There is almost no better way to genuinely get to know someone than to engage in a cause together and volunteer in a board leadership capacity.
JF: To get started perhaps you could share, from the perspective of a nonprofit organization, what would constitute an ideal board member?
MF: For most organizations, it is about engagement, professional and consistent communication, and a strong passion for the mission and work of the organization. The ideal board member is an ambassador in the community representing the organization with passion and care, and accountability against an agreed upon board role and objectives in areas such as fundraising and of course governance. The organization’s board chair and other leadership are responsible for onboarding and orienting new board members, and providing the tools and regular information required to succeed in the role. Staff can often get involved as well to engage board members and support them after they open doors to new opportunities and resources. The board member’s role is to follow through on their commitments which usually includes a personally sacrificial gift, fundraising additional contributions to the organization, generally leveraging their network to benefit the organization and add new resources, and then all of the governance duties mentioned throughout our conversation and including sitting on one or more committees and attending board meetings to vote on key decisions and perform governance work between meetings.
JF: So with this ideal picture in mind– say the Chairman of a nonprofit board approaches me to join their board what should I think about and also ask them before I make that decision?
MF: Here is my list of top things consider:
- Determine which causes are meaningful to you and be ready to provide proof of your passion when you’re interviewed for a board position. Can you sincerely show that you have a passionate interest in a certain nonprofit’s mission and care genuinely about the challenges and pressing issues on its agenda? If so, you’re on the right track. As you will be interviewed and vetted by the Board, it is essential you prepare for what is essentially a job interview. Your passion and commitment for the organization and cause is what will set you apart from other candidates.
- Zero in on what you have to offer. Boards are often looking for people who can help them in specific areas, like fundraising, PR and marketing, event planning and finance. If you have any of those skills, play them up. Moreover, your time, energy, intelligence and financial resources — or connections — are worth something as well.
- Think strategically about what being on the nonprofit’s Board can do for you. Use the Board to build your knowledge of a particular mission area and a specific skill set, but also as a platform to show your expertise and competence to influential people in the nonprofit and for-profit world. If you plan to leverage your position to land a job in the nonprofit sector, enhance your current career or start an entrepreneurial venture with social purpose, consider the connections you can make through the board you are aiming to join. One way to do this is to ask the board’s leadership to tell you about its other members and research them on the organization’s website, through LinkedIn, etc.. Most people who sit on nonprofit boards are also sitting on others or have sat on others in the past. Consequently, they have governance experience to share and know people in other organizations. Further, most board members are engaged in robust for profit careers and enjoy building mutually beneficial business relationships.
- See if you’re impressed by the way the board has run the nonprofit. Ask for written board policies, bylaws and previous minutes. Then invite current and former board members for coffee to find out what their experience has been like. Also ask to attend a board meeting as a guest before making your final decision. You should also check out the organization’s latest online tax filing (Form 990) to assess the organization’s overall financial health (along with audited or unaudited financial statements), see who the major donors are, how much its key employees and executives earn, the footnotes, etc. The 990 is also a marketing tool for savvy organizations who recognize its public power.
- Understand why the board wants you — and what it wants out of you. Is it for your skills? Your access to potential donors? Your own giving power? To learn what is specifically expected of you, it is important to obtain the answers to the following questions:
- How much time will I be asked to give?
- When does the board work get done?
- Are the meetings on weekends, weeknights or weekdays?
- How long will I need to serve?
- What size donation will I have to make to the group, and how often? (give-and-get)
- Will I have to use my connections to raise funds? (give-and-get)
- Local boards vs. National boards One more question to ask yourself is whether you would rather devote your energy to a local nonprofit or a national one. A local board may give you a better chance to be involved at the ground level, but it can also be time consuming, and not as strategic or in control if a national governing board also exists. Serving on a national board can be a little headier; its members may be key players in their respective industries, and the organization is more likely to have a high-profile, high-impact mission and a larger fundraising expectation.
JF: I understand that joining a board comes with a number of fiduciary responsibilities as well – would you mind explaining those for us?
MF: Boards have two primary functions – governance and fundraising. Just as for any corporation, the Board of Directors has three primary legal duties known as the “duty of care,” “duty of loyalty,” and “duty of obedience.”
- Duty of Care : Take care of the nonprofit by ensuring prudent use of all assets, including facility, people, and good will;
- Duty of Loyalty : Ensure that the nonprofit’s activities and transactions are, first and foremost, advancing its mission; Recognize and disclose conflicts of interest; Make decisions that are in the best interest of the nonprofit corporation; not in the best interest of the individual board member (or any other individual or for-profit entity).
- Duty of Obedience : Ensure that the nonprofit obeys applicable laws and regulations; follows its own bylaws; and that the nonprofit adheres to its stated corporate purposes/mission.
The top governance and fundraising responsibilities of Board Members are:
- Determine mission and purpose. It is the board’s responsibility to create and review a statement of mission and purpose that articulates the organization’s goals, means, and primary constituents served.
- Select the chief executive/executive director. Boards must reach consensus on the chief executive’s responsibilities and undertake a careful search to find the most qualified individual for the position.
- Support, evaluate and compensate the chief executive/executive director. The board should ensure that the chief executive/executive director has the moral and professional support he or she needs to further the goals of the organization.
- Ensure effective planning. Boards must actively participate in an overall planning process and assist in implementing and monitoring the plan’s goals.
- Monitor and strengthen programs and services. The board’s responsibility is to determine which programs are consistent with the organization’s mission and monitor their effectiveness.
- Ensure adequate financial resources. One of the board’s foremost responsibilities is to secure adequate resources for the organization to fulfill its mission.
- Protect assets and provide proper financial oversight. The board must assist in developing the annual budget and ensuring that proper financial controls are in place.
- Build a competent board. All boards have a responsibility to articulate prerequisites for candidates, orient new members, and periodically and comprehensively evaluate their own performance.
- Ensure legal and ethical integrity. The board is ultimately responsible for adherence to legal standards and ethical norms.
- Enhance the organization’s public standing . The board should clearly articulate the organization’s mission, accomplishments, and goals to the public and garner support from the community as a key Ambassador.
JF: Ok so swapping things around here now –say I decide I want to serve on a board but I’m not sure how to begin that search. What would your suggestions be to get started?
MF: Well, one thing you can do is call me. I love helping people (gratis) get started with a quick call to guide that person and get them going on the right track. I also have a great, comprehensive list of due diligence questions everyone who is considering joining a board should ask. Just as the organization is vetting prospective members, and determining whether or not they are a fit for their board, candidates should be equally rigorous in their due diligence process.
Usually I would recommend asking yourself a series of questions to get started: What cause area(s) am I most passionate about and interested in? What size organization, and place in its lifecycle, is the best fit for me and how I want to contribute my time and financial resources at this time? What types of board members/peers am I most interested in serving alongside? And what board and organization culture am I looking for?
If you work with a professional advisor in the field, we can guide you through a number of these questions, help you with your due diligence, and also know a lot of behind the scenes information about some organization’s leadership, financial health, etc. that can help you make the best fit decision.
JF: Thank you so much for those great guides. Before we finish I wondered if you could share one personal story of a rewarding experience as a board member that might encourage our readers to serve on a nonprofit board in the future?
MF: One really rewarding experience was flying out to John Alm’s ranch in Wyoming to spend a long weekend at the C5LA camp. The growth and learning that the youth were experiencing on a daily basis was palpable and very moving. To see them become vulnerable with peers and counselors, opening up and building resiliency, as a team and individually, was very emotional to witness and participate in. The working cattle ranch where John hosts the Los Angeles program every summer is also breathtaking. (picture below of previous students at the ranch)