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Non-profits look for more from board members

Rochester Business Journal
March 2, 2012

The days of board members serving non-profits as a way to pad their resumes or show off their importance are gone, Jessica Murray says.
Murray, a partner at Hiscock & Barclay LLP and the chair of the Ad Council of Greater Rochester's board development committee, has noticed a shift in what organizations are asking of board members. As financial and regulatory pressures grow for non-profit organizations, many want more out of board members and a different skill set in the members they choose.
This change is especially evident among smaller organizations, Murray says. Board members are expected to take a more active role as ambassadors, promoting the organization in more proactive ways than previous generations of board members.
Fundraising is a perfect example of this trend, Murray says. For many organizations this was expected only of certain board members, those chosen for their connections or ability to raise money, but now many non-profits have adopted an "all hands on deck" approach.
"In large organizations board members were seen as having an important role in fundraising, but for smaller organizations members were stakeholders in some way and the expectation was they wouldn't necessarily be involved in fundraising," Murray says. "That has definitely changed. It is now expected they would have a role in fundraising, whether that's raising money yourself or helping in some other way."
Fundraising is not a one-size-fits-all requirement for board members, Murray notes. Not all members will be expected to raise money directly and instead can contribute in other ways that better fit their specific skills.
Murray says she does not have the connections to do direct fundraising, but was able to help organize a dinner event to raise money.
"We had a dinner event where we were the waiters and all the tips went to the Ad Council," she says. "I love food and I love the Ad Council, so that was something that worked for me. Board members are being asked to find what they care about and find a way that can help."
At Happiness House, the profile for the ideal board member has expanded in recent years. Two years ago the Finger Lakes human service organization created a foundation, splitting into two separate boards. Those with a fundraising background serve on the foundation board, opening up the organizational board to those with different skills.
"The change has enabled us to attract individuals who are interested in the marketing end, income and financial issues," says Mary Walsh Boatfield, CEO of Happiness House.
For the Ad Council, the opposite is true of board members, though the principle of seeking more input and participation remains the same, Murray says. The board once sought individuals with specific expertise, and still does, but it now expects them to participate in fundraising in addition to contributing their own skills.
Specialization is common among many boards, says Howard Berman, chairman of the Center for Community Engagement at St. John Fisher College and retired CEO of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. In a general sense the main purpose of board members remains the same, to enhance the public's trust in the organization, but the details have expanded greatly, he says.
The job expansion has taken place in response to growing pressures on non-profit organizations, he says.
"Board members have to be looking at strategies and resources and constantly testing whether or not what they're doing is the best way to achieve the mission," says Berman, author of "Making a Difference: The Management and Governance of Non-Profit Enterprises."
Board members traditionally fit into four categories, Berman says.
In the first group are those chosen for honorific positions to add luster to the board, a category steadily declining. The next are serious and time-efficient people, those who can give the board credibility as a hard-working body. The third set are those who can help the organization's development, either through donations or fundraising.
The fourth category-those who can work in specialized areas like strategic development or governance issues-are the ones in growing demand, Berman says.
"With all the regulations and oversight non-profits are facing, those who can work on compliance and governance can enhance the credibility of the organization because they make sure it stays out of trouble and focused on the mission," he says.
But as demands on people's time grow, board members are becoming harder to find, Berman says. This is especially true of those with specialized skills. As a result, many organizations are learning to look past the perfect candidates to attract those who can be molded to fit the job.
"It's almost a double-edge sword," Berman says. "Boards are looking for people at the top of the edge, fully qualified and ready to go, rather than understanding that they can grow and develop board members to be this. Someone may not come in full stride one day, but the organization can educate and develop members to understand the organization."
The outreach to find new board members has expanded as well, Murray notes. Organizations are making efforts to reach a younger audience through young professional groups or networking events, developing the people who will become donors or board members one day.
"I think that outreach is great, and it didn't exist on a formal level like that when I was younger," Murray says. "I feel fortunate that people made an individual effort to get me involved because I'm not originally from here and it helped me get involved and be connected, but if those formal networks existed that do today it would have been a lot easier."
Happiness House completes a profile each year for both the organizational and foundation boards, looking at the members it has and their skill sets. Along with traditional financial and strategic direction skills, the organization also seeks the new-age skill set that young members bring.
"Technology and social media (are) becoming a larger requirement for Happiness House as far as keeping up with the Web," Boatfield says. "We're using iPads now with many of our consumers, especially people with autism, so it's good to have board members who are aware of technology and can help us obtain the resources necessary to train staff to utilize that technology."

3/2/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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