Joining a not for profit board
By Rose Hiha-Agnew
There are 114,000 community organisations (not for profits, charities, NGOs and community groups) in Aotearoa / New Zealand that provide so much for our country.
Our country would not function without the tireless work of these organisations across all sectors: supporting parents, caring for older people, fighting fires, surf lifesaving, environmental protection and organising education, religion, sport and arts events, to name a few. Most of these groups will have some form of board or committee governance.
I’ve had various governance experiences including chairing Keep New Zealand Beautiful and co-chairing the Endangered Species Foundation, and am now the programme director for Community Governance NZ leading the National Action Plan for Community Governance. Our aim is to support community governors to succeed. When they thrive, so do their organisations and so do their communities.
Below I outline what it means to take on a board governance role, the steps to think about before you say yes, and how you can quickly settle in to make the most impact.
Before deciding to join a board…
If you get invited to join your local school committee, to be part of a regional advisory board, to be a board member of a do-good organisation you care about, it’s a great opportunity to step up – but maybe you are not quite sure what is expected of you, or your legal obligations and responsibilities as a governance member – then this blog is for you.
What does it mean to take on a governance role?
Broadly, if you sit on a board or committee in a governance role, your responsibility is to act in the best interest of your organisation, make sure it remains focused on its purpose and the benefit it provides to the public. This can range from helping set the strategy and the long term direction of the organisation, ensuring the organisation is run legally, responsibly and effectively and ensuring that the organisation does things in the best interest of the organisation’s purpose and those it serves.
While many people in board roles care deeply about the cause, we are not always experienced “governors”.
Research has consistently shown that the capability and capacity of boards and committees in the community sector is variable.
- Whenever you are about to join a board or take on a governance role, you need to do your due diligence. This might be as simple as asking a friend or colleague if they have heard of the organisation and can provide feedback.
- Do an online google search to find out more about what the organisation does, and look for any potential negative media – and how they have handled it. It’s good to gauge their reputation before jumping in.
- Visit the Charities Register and search for the latest annual report from the organisation. This can help tell you who is involved, and of the organisation’s financial position and its deed (reason for operating).
- Consider your own workload, are you able to attend late-night meetings or meetings during the day, consider if you have the time to commit to this role. If it falls during the day, it might also be important to check with your employee if you can get this time off (remembering to perhaps remind them that volunteering on boards is great personal development training and you are doing social good!).
- If you are interested in a board, ask if you can observe a board meeting, or ask the Chairperson for coffee so you can get a better understanding of how they govern, their regular meetings and if it’s a good fit for you.
- You may also want to see if they have liability insurance that is covered by the board.
- Identify what skills you bring to the table that the board needs. Do they have gaps in knowledge they are looking to fill? Sometimes boards are seeking candidates to fulfil certain board functions, and this may be outlined in their advertisement, for example, they may be seeking candidates with financial experience to fill a treasurer’s role.
Governance versus operational work?
It’s also really important to be aware of the difference between operational decisions and governance. This is something that is not often understood – particularly in smaller organisations. For example, if you’ve taken on a governance role and they were looking for someone with fundraising or marketing experience, make sure to clarify what exactly they expect you to do. Pure governance means being part of the fundraising or marketing policy, but depending on the size of the organisation, things can start to get murky quickly. Do they really want you to be someone who is operational and doing things like running a fundraiser, talking to donors, running the social media accounts? These are operational tasks, not governance, so make sure you are clear on expectations. These are good conversations to have early on.
Did you know that boards will and should do due diligence on you too? Be prepared – you may be asked if you have ever been bankrupt or to provide your credit history – these are important if you are a signatory of a trust. It’s all part of your responsibilities as a board member.
Once you’ve joined a board
You’ve joined a board. Awesome! Here are some simple tips to transition onto a new board.
- Ask your new board if they have an induction pack to help new board members? This could include things like a trust deed, existing policy and past meeting minutes so you can get up to speed quickly.
- Is there anyone who can mentor you for a few months to help? Community Governance NZ will be offering a free community governance mentoring (for up to 100 people) across Aotearoa in 2022. More details to come on our new website to be launched late Nov 21.
- Are there any resources you could read to best understand your role in governance? Community Governance NZ has a vision that all 114,000 community governance organisations across Aotearoa are well-governed and will be launching a dedicated website with a library of resources available (coming late Nov 21). There are a host of other good governance websites too to support you on this journey.
And finally, my last tip, be respectful, diplomatic, helpful, and maintain a level of professionalism at the not for profit board table. As the biggest strength and skill set you could bring to a governance role on a board is the best version of you and your reputation – as we all know, New Zealand only has two degrees of separation and someone is bound to know you!
ABOUT ROSE HIHA-AGNEW
Rose Hiha-Agnew is programme director for Community Governance NZ. Rose has extensive experience in management and governance across iwi, community and governance organisations. She has led environmental, Te Ao Māori, sustainability and large-scale infrastructure programmes. Rose’s governance experience includes chairing Keep New Zealand Beautiful and co-chairing the Endangered Species Foundation. She is passionate about sustainable, economic, cultural and environmental opportunities that enable cultural perspectives and inclusiveness which lead to positive community outcomes.