I'm sure we all know people who serve on more than one board at the same time. You may be one of them. Makes sense. Most of us have multiple interests and, if we're committed to involvement in our communities, some of us will volunteer in ways that wed our interests to our desires to make better the places where we live and play. And, it stands to reason that, over time, we could be recognized by more than one organization for our strengths, our talents, or our connections.
Don't you marvel, though, at the number of talented people you know who would never consider serving on a board? Or they don't quite seem to make it on any organization's radar screen to be asked? When you think about it, it's no wonder so many organizations seem to be begging for board members. Well, there are two (at least) sides to that issue and today I want to explore the side that deals with the person who does make it onto the radar screens and into multiple board rooms.
Here's the set-up: individuals who have a high board service profile tend to get recruited more frequently for board service than those who have a low profile or no profile at all. You know the old saying, "Ask a busy person...." The plus is the possibility of cross-pollination. Here's the pitfall: when does multiple board service become a liability?
It's tricky being on more than one board at once. First of all, you've got all those meetings. Board meetings, committee meetings, donor visits, fundraising events. They can really fill up a calendar! Then, there's all the background you need to know about the organization and its mission. And don't forget all the material you need to read, digest, and come prepared to discuss. Did I mention all the people you'll be meeting and the checks you'll be expected to be writing?
And what about the sensitive or proprietary information you'll become privy to? You'll be seeing the underbelly of balance sheets, you'll be hearing about stakeholder giving capacity, you'll learn about internal struggles and triumphs. Who says the nonprofit world isn't competitive?
Just how easy is it to compartmentalize the work of one board from that of another? It's hard for some to leave the details behind in one board room, much less several. And if the organizations are even remotely similar it takes the strength of Atlas not to let one board's work seep into another's.
So, here's my short list of advice for folks who are contemplating serving on multiple boards:
- Choose organizations whose missions are distinctly different. A hospital board and an art center board pose many less conflicts of interest than two (or more boards) of the same kind of organization. A professional association board is much different than the philharmonic board. Different missions, different issues -- that's the key.
- Know your time limits. Board service can demand a lot of time. If you find that you're missing more meetings than making them or that you're not able to keep your promised deadlines, then cut the cord and pull back. You'll be thanked for it.
- Zip your lip. Don't share proprietary information or juicy gossip among organizations. Sensitive information needs to be treated, well...sensitively. That's not to say that if one of your organizations meets with an issue you know your other organization will meet with you sit tight. Share helpful information, but be mindful.
- Recuse yourself. Two beautiful words. When you've got a conflict of interest between your organizations, take yourself out of the discussion and decision-making. Be the first to be helpful, but be the first to take yourself out.
Photo: Multiple personnalities by digitaldirectphotos.com