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Nonprofit Board Member Job Descriptions – Seriously?

The first question we typically ask at our training sessions and workshops on the board’s roles and responsibilities is, Do you have a board member job description? More often than not the answer is a resounding no.


This blog was contributed by Amy Cahners and Susan Donahue, principals at Cahners & Donahue Associates LLC, a management consulting firm that is dedicated to helping nonprofit boards work more effectively.

As we conclude our sessions, we tell the attendees that if they do nothing else when they leave us, we hope that they will go back and create job descriptions, not only for the board members but also for the officers and the committees. Doing so allows board members to understand their legal, fiduciary and ethical responsibilities, as well as their commitment in terms of time, treasure and talent.

Why Bother to Create a Board Member Job Description?

Why do we feel that the board member job description is so critical to creating a high performing board? Quite frankly, without it there is:

  • No clarity around the expectations the organization has for its board members
  • No basis for accountability when a board member doesn’t perform as expected
  • No distinction and boundaries between the role of the board members and those of the executive director and staff

This lack of clarity and accountability can create confusion and waste the time and energy of the board and the organization.

What’s the Not-So-Secret Recipe?

According to BoardSource, a board of directors has four primary responsibilities:

  • Mission: create a clear, succinct mission statement that expresses the organization’s core values and reason for being and revisit this mission regularly, revising if necessary
  • Oversight: establish appropriate checks and balances to ensure the organization is well managed and its mission is carried out
  • Resource development: ensure the organization has the financial and human resources it needs to fulfill its mission
  • Outreach: connect with the external community to promote the organization’s mission, values, and programs (e.g., through recruiting new board members, volunteers, and donors; expanding the organization’s network of supporters)

Each director plays a critical role in contributing to the overall board responsibilities described above. An effective board member job description will specifically outline the obligations each director is expected to meet in regard to these four areas of board governance.

What Fundraising Responsibilities Should Be Included?

For example, what responsibilities in regard to fundraising should be included in a job description? We suggest the following.

As a board, provide fiduciary oversight to the fundraising efforts:

  • Ensure that there is an annual fundraising plan in place.
  • Monitor the results of the plan.

As an individual board member, assist with the organization’s fundraising efforts:

  • Identify and cultivate relationships with potential donors.
  • Support the organization’s annual giving program by giving as generously as possible.
  • Attend fundraising events.

Clearly articulating fundraising expectations is particularly important. Many board members join a board, unaware that they have a responsibility to both give a personal gift to the organization as well as help fundraise on behalf of the organization. A clear job description leaves no ambiguity about what is expected of a board member, should they decide to serve on the board.

Putting It to Good Use

Potential board members should carefully review the job description before they agree to join the board. It is a critical tool in the recruiting process because it clearly articulates what is expected of all board members in the organization. There should be no surprises once the candidate becomes a board member. Too often we hear board members say “no one told me I would have to make a gift” or “no one told me I would have to serve on a committee” or “I didn’t know that I had to attend all the board meetings.” The time to make these expectations clear is during the recruiting process, which allows a prospective board member to make an informed decision about making a commitment to your board.

Once the person has accepted the role, the new board member should see the job description is at the new-board-member orientation. This is the time to delve into the board member expectations and allow new board members to ask questions and fully understand the scope of what is expected of them.

It is ideal to reissue a copy of the job description annually at the first board meeting of the year to remind everyone of their roles and responsibilities. Some organizations choose to have board members sign the document to acknowledge that it has been read and agreed to.

The job description should also be included in a board member handbook or reference materials, whether in a physical notebook or a digital file.

If a board member is not meeting the articulated expectations, the board chair can use the job description to as a reminder. It can function as a jumping-off point for a discussion by restating the expectations and allowing both parties to determine if the board member is willing or able to meet the job expectations and continue serving on the board.

Final Thoughts

Professionally, none of us would hire someone without making it clear what is expected. The same should hold true when recruiting and selecting board members for a nonprofit organization. The board member job description is the first and most important step to ensure that an organization has a high-performing board—a board whose members know what is expected of them and who work to support the organization and its mission.

Amy Cahmers

About the Contributor: Amy Cahmers

Amy’s career in nonprofit consulting grew out of years of nonprofit volunteer work combined with years of for-profit management experience. Amy works primarily with nonprofit organizations in the areas of board governance, strategy, and operations.

Amy has dedicated time to a variety of educational and community based organizations. She currently serves on the Board of Overseers of Newton Wellesley Hospital, on the board of Brown-RISD Hillel, and as an emeritus board member of the Harvard Business School Association of Boston Community Action Partners, where she is a past board chair. Amy has served on the governance committee of the Arsenal Center for the Arts and the Parents Committee at Lehigh University. She has held numerous leadership roles at both Belmont Day School and The Rivers School, including board member, chair of committee on trustees, capital campaign major gifts committee, and senior parents’ gift committee. In addition, she was a founding member of the Bedford Family Connection and chair of the Myopia Hill Neighborhood Association.

Previously, she worked in retail executive management for Bradlees Department Stores, The Gap Stores, Abraham & Straus, as well as other major retailers.

Amy holds an A.B. from Brown University and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School.

One Response to Nonprofit Board Member Job Descriptions – Seriously?

  1. Joe Martinez March 19, 2017 at 12:44 pm #

    Excellent approach to explaining the role of a board member. Thank you

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