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The Buck Stops with the Volunteer Board

Principles and practices resources from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits

Volunteer nonprofit board members must do their homework to govern effectively.

Arriving home last week from an overseas vacation, I was startled by more bad press for Minnesota nonprofits.

In the country I just visited, graft and corruption are commonplace.  So a story about nonprofit leaders spending tax dollars on lavish trips and spa treatments would not lead the news — or perhaps be reported at all.

But nonprofit leaders — including volunteer board members — must meet a higher standard in the U.S.  To maintain the public trust, they must act responsibly and ethically, as noted by  Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Executive Director Jon Pratt  in his open letter to members.

The Board is Ultimately Responsible
In the current Community Action of Minneapolis case, the state audit language is damning:

Our review found several deficiencies in the internal control environment, ranging from
inadequate board oversight of operations to inadequate allocation of costs and unacceptable
levels of documented outcomes.

The report’s findings emphasized especially the failure of the board members to “provide independent and objective oversight of senior management or program operations.”

Of course, insufficient board oversight makes headlines in the for-profit sector, too.  But our expectations for individuals who are dedicated to alleviating poverty are understandably high.

Don’t Be Fooled by the “Volunteer” Label
In my years working and volunteering in nonprofits, I’ve seen many bright, hard-working board members who bring their whole selves to their volunteer posts — carefully preparing for board meetings, asking insightful questions about programs and financials, and offering professional guidance that ensures good governance.

But I’ve also come across a few board members who don’t take their oversight duties seriously or who are ill-equipped to carry out their fiduciary responsibilities.  I understand (but cannot accept) how this happens.  The volunteer board member, who can dedicate only a few hours a week or month to her nonprofit work, may defer to the full-time executive director who is an expert in the field.  Or the volunteer board member has little experience reading financials or interpreting program outcomes.

But at the end of the day, the law is the law and the board members — volunteer or not — are ultimately responsible for the organization’s operations.

Easy Access to Resources
If you currently serve on (or plan to join) a nonprofit board and have any doubts about your responsibilities or skills, check out some of the many excellent local educational resources, such as:

Or, take a look at materials offered by BoardSource, the  national go-to organization for information on nonprofit governance.

You Can’t Pass the Buck
Finger pointing and political haymaking are already going full tilt in the Community Action of Minneapolis situation.

But if you’re a volunteer board member, don’t think you can pass the buck.  And anyway, why would you want to shirk your responsibilities?  By being a well-informed, active board director, you can build a stronger, more effective organization.  And that can create positive headlines for you, your cause and the public.

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