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Last updated October 3, 2014

Often people end up on a non-profit board with plenty of passion, but no real understanding of what they’ve signed up for. If you happen to be one of them, and are wondering just what it is that a Board does – take a deep breath and realise you’re not alone. It’s a good idea to get some basic Governance training but in the meantime, here’s a brief summary of ‘The Role of the Non-Profit Board’.

In a nutshell, the Non-Profit Board acts like a ‘General on the Hill’ and is responsible for the long-term success of an organisation. As such, the role of the Board is to provide:

The Board is ultimately responsible for the activities of the organisation, so it is essential that all Trustees show an active interest in their role. Collectively, Trustees must lead by example and conduct themselves in a way that they would expect from staff, volunteers or other members of the organisation. Your Board sets the tone for how your whole organisation is run.

Strategic Direction
An effective Board directs the work of the organisation and makes decisions based on its ‘big picture’ mission. They understand what the organisation is ultimately trying to achieve, and are proactive in addressing both challenges and opportunities as they arise. Your Board is responsible for plotting the course, while managing risk to the organisation as a whole.

A Capable, Well Managed CEO
The General is not involved in the day-to-day activities of its troops, and so therefore needs a leader on the ground to ensure that the ‘big picture’ directions are carried out. This is the role of the CEO. A part of the Board’s role is to appoint the CEO of an organisation, and ensure that this person is well supported in their role. Most often the Chair is responsible for communication with the CEO, as well as managing and supporting them in their role.

Monitoring and Accountability
The Board must ensure the organisation is operating in a way that meets all its legal and ethical obligations. Trustees can be held liable for any illegal actions of the organisation.

Adequate Resources
The Board is responsible for ensuring the organisation has enough resources to carry out its mission. While the Board may delegate much of this task to their CEO, it is ultimately the Board’s responsibility. The Board should work in partnership with their CEO to ensure the financial sustainability of the organisation.

Regular Review of their Own Performance
An effective Board regularly reviews its performance, identifies areas for improvement, and takes steps to ensure it has the necessary skills, knowledge and expertise to do its job well.

If you’re not sure whether something is within your role, put yourself in the ‘Generals’ shoes. If it’s big picture planning, monitoring, evaluating, supporting or leading – then chances are it’s a job for you. If it’s about day-to-day frontline work, practice staying on the General’s hill and let your troops get on with the job.

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