Nonprofits have a wide range of missions — including everything from providing shelter to the homeless to advocating for the interests of members. But all nonprofits have one thing in common: a board of directors or trustees.
While the nature of the relationship between a nonprofit’s staff and its board varies across organizations, all boards have practical, legal, and ethical duties. These responsibilities ensure proper oversight and enable the organization to make consistent progress toward its mission.
Want to help your board members feel more engaged? We’ve got a free guide.
At Boardable, we’ve worked with several nonprofits to amplify their impact on their communities and have seen firsthand how a disorganized boardroom can interrupt operations altogether. After years of working with a range of causes, we have a firm understanding of what makes for a successful, collaborative board.
Using our firsthand experience, we’ll cover everything you need to know about common board member roles and responsibilities:
Your nonprofit board steers your organization toward a sound future by ensuring that it’s fulfilling its mission in the most effective way possible. Setting expectations upfront will lay the groundwork for an effective team that understands exactly what it needs to be doing. Everyone will be on the same page. Plus, there won’t be any room for excuses when members are called out for not carrying their weight. Let’s dive in!
You’d never apply to a paying job with no idea what the role entails. So why ask your nonprofit board officers to do the same? Before you can start writing guidelines for your board’s leaders, you need to understand those general responsibilities yourself. Let’s explore common board member roles and their corresponding duties.
To function effectively, every group needs a passionate leader. Your chairperson—also commonly referred to as the president—serves as your chief elected officer. As the leader of your board, there are many responsibilities that this individual takes on.
Here are a few duties that are commonly assigned to the chairperson:
It’s important that this nonprofit board role is filled by a qualified and passionate individual. Your chairperson should be approachable and an objective listener. They should be a strategist and be incredibly knowledgeable about the organization. Selecting a well-rounded and respected chairperson will prove invaluable to your team.
The vice-chair—also commonly referred to as the chair-elect or the vice president—generally offers support for the board chair and other leadership when needed. Think of the vice-chair as the future leader of your organization’s board.
The vice-chair tackles the following duties:
Ideally, this board member role will be filled by someone who possesses similar qualifications as the current presiding officer. They’ll be able to step up whenever need-be.
The role of a nonprofit board secretary is critical for the smooth operations of the board. Most commonly, this individual ensures that board members are given appropriate notice of meetings and proactively records these meetings. However, their duties extend beyond this and vary from organization to organization.
Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of board secretaries are as follows:
A board secretary has to be on top of every task, which also means that this individual needs a fluid set of skills. Some desirable qualities for this position include strong communication skills and the ability to organize and prioritize tasks. This extremely driven and detail-oriented individual should also be well-versed in administrative work.
For a smaller nonprofit organization, a secretary could be just about anyone who is able to learn quickly and juggle many things. For larger nonprofit organizations, a nonprofit secretary is more likely to have a full 4-year degree and to have served in a secretary position before. Often, the executive director’s administrative assistant will prepare board meeting documents, too.
The nonprofit board treasurer deals with the organization’s finances and makes important decisions regarding spending and investing. This role is a demanding and engaging one, with a lot of responsibility and opportunity to initiate change.
A nonprofit treasurer typically takes on the following responsibilities:
Usually, a nonprofit board treasurer should be someone who already has experience in bookkeeping or accounting — but that’s not always necessary. A board treasurer may simply be someone who is highly trustworthy since they’ll be responsible for producing financial statements and handling the organization’s funds.
In larger organizations, the board treasurer may be in charge of staff who will directly manage the organization’s finances. Conversely, in smaller organizations, the board treasurer is more likely to do everything on their own.
No matter what your mission is or what expertise your members bring, any nonprofit board member must fulfill three specific core legal responsibilities. For any organization, the following duties are adopted across many organizations and should be expected of your board members.
Being a board member is more than a résumé builder. Members should be committed to following through on promises and assisting the organization to the best of their abilities. This means:
Board members who neglect this prime duty are simply taking up space in the boardroom. Ideally, your entire board is motivated and truly passionate about your mission. As a result, fulfilling the duty of care is easy.
Board members should do more than show up. They should fully support and embody your organization’s mission and be loyal ambassadors for your cause. When acting on behalf of the organization, each board member must put aside their personal and professional interests.
All activities and decisions should be in the best interest of the organization, not in the best interest of the individual board member.
Those who successfully fulfill this duty are those who proactively mingle with volunteers, visit your nonprofit’s facilities, and participate in community initiatives. These individuals fully embrace your mission, not just board service.
One of the more subtle duties of a nonprofit board member is obedience. The board should do everything in its power to reach organizational goals, but members still have an obligation to follow your organization’s guidelines. These are found in your governance documents, and every board member has a legal responsibility to understand them.
A board that strays from your governance rules could steer your organization in the wrong direction or even impact your nonprofit’s standing in the community.
As the executive director, it’s up to you to provide every new board member with these documents and ensure they obey applicable laws and regulations. You might also encourage existing board members to refresh themselves on your guidelines at least once a year. This ensures they understand exactly what they can (and can’t) do.
While each leadership position entails its own responsibilities, there are several duties that each and every board member must complete, regardless of their position. As a whole, your nonprofit’s board should adhere to the following seven core responsibilities.
Your nonprofit’s biggest advocates are its board members. These individuals are the face of your cause and should be expected to use their efforts and abilities to promote the organization’s core mission in an ethical manner.
This responsibility will come naturally for your most enthusiastic board members. All directors should proactively promote your work, attempting to ignite that same passion in others. This pertains not only to their personal and professional networks but to public relations as well. When speaking to the media on behalf of your nonprofit, they should paint your organization in the best light possible.
Overall, spreading awareness for your mission will promote growth and empower your team to flourish in its work.
There’s a lot at stake when it comes to managing a nonprofit. Every board of directors needs to understand internal policies and the legal implications of your organization. Failure to do so can result in severe consequences, such as heavy fees.
It’s up to board members to understand federal, state, and local laws that apply to your organization. Then, they must assure that the organization adheres to those legal obligations.
For instance, all tax-related filings must be done completely and on time, including all annual state and federal tax returns. While registered 501(c)(3) organizations are exempt from income tax, they must still pay payroll tax, property taxes, and so on. Failure to file the IRS File-990 return three consecutive times can result in revocation of tax-exempt status. Ensuring that it’s been filed is not only the responsibility of the treasurer, but of everyone who participates in fundraising operations.
Additionally, boards should be aware of the penalties caused by:
Many states also implement laws that require board members to assume a fiduciary responsibility to the served population. This means acting in good faith and working for the benefit of those you serve, never against it.
It should go without saying that board members should attend and contribute during meetings. After all, this is when they can share their insight, get creative, and have deep conversations about promoting a mission that has a special place in their hearts. However, many board members fall short of expectations and become too lax with meetings.
Share the following suggestions to establish a much more collaborative (and much less chaotic) boardroom:
To prevent any issues upfront, consider also implementing an attendance requirement, with exceptions for emergencies and other unavoidable situations. After all, members should have sufficient time to give to your organization. Otherwise, they’re not fulfilling their basic duties.
Hiring and overseeing the executive director is one of the most important board responsibilities as it has the greatest impact on the organization’s growth and vitality. The executive director serves as the gateway between the nonprofit’s staff and board members.
This responsibility is typically assigned to a few board members, who oversee the hiring process. Here are the steps these individuals typical follow when overseeing the executive director:
Regardless of your mission, this process is a crucial component of any nonprofit board’s responsibilities. Be sure to select passionate and detailed-oriented board members to serve on your hiring committee, and put a process in place for ensuring ongoing success.
Your board members are the most knowledgeable on what skills and qualities are missing from the boardroom. By leveraging this insight, they’re highly qualified to locate the next best board members to fill those gaps.
Current board members should constantly be on the lookout for passionate, qualified recruits who will bring additional knowledge, talent, and background experience to the table. Just like with selecting an executive director, your board is responsible for locating qualified prospects, conducting interviews, and selecting the most qualified candidates.
RELATED: Check out our complete guide to board member recruitment, where you’ll learn all about locating high-quality candidates and optimizing their experience.
Not only should they participate in recruitment, but current board members should also assist in onboarding new directors. For those who are retiring from their positions, this means training their successors. As for those who are returning for another term, this means proactively getting to know new members, ensuring they have access to the board platform, and simply providing a friendly face in the boardroom.
As part of the board’s primary responsibilities, they should make the most of their resources and take the necessary steps to ensure proper governance. This means employing exceptional board software like Boardable to enhance communication and conduct highly-efficient meetings.
A little research will lead to excellent tools that automate almost everything the board does. For instance, Boardable is a one-stop app for all your board management tasks with easy-to-use features like:
Implementing the right tools frees your board from distractions, allowing everyone to focus on governance, strategy, and other vital areas to your mission. A solution like Boardable comes with standout features (like those mentioned above) to boost efficiency. Give our board software a test run to get a feel of the intuitive system — no credit card or commitment required!
Most of the board’s work is completed in committees. There simply isn’t enough time for the entire board to have lengthy conversations and research specific issues in depth. Because of this, every board member should serve on a committee, effectively steering the organization toward its goals.
Individuals should be assigned to committees based on past experience, skills, and interests. For instance, a board member who has a background in accounting would be a great fit for the finance committee.
Like with individual board members, each committee should receive a written document that covers their responsibilities, guidelines, and goals. It’s the full board’s responsibility to regularly assess each committee’s success and adjust accordingly.
Enthusiastic board members can breathe new life into any organization. But, that’s only if they first fulfill their basic responsibilities. As a leader of your nonprofit’s board, it’s up to you to ensure your fellow board members understand what they should (and shouldn’t) be doing. This way, they can leverage their skills and direct their energy into advancing your organization’s mission in a sound, legal, and ethical manner.
A board of directors does not exist solely to fulfill legal duties, but rather, they contribute to the organization’s culture, strategic focus, and financial sustainability. A well-functioning board that adheres to its responsibilities is essential to the health and sustainability of any nonprofit.
Based on your solidified knowledge of board member responsibilities, you can now confidently move forward with outlining specific duties for your own organization’s board! Just make sure you’re first backed by exceptional board software to streamline communications and carry out vital board processes efficiently.
If you’re looking to continue your research on nonprofit board development, we suggest that you explore the following resources: