Farm Progress

Serving on boards demanding but rewarding

Home Front: Being on a board opens you up to challenges, learning and responsibility, and teaches you how things work behind the scenes.

Rhonda McCurry, Freelance

December 6, 2016

6 Min Read

Being on a board is a unique term of service. It can be fulfilling, exhausting and frustrating, all in one day.

Yet it’s something I think more people should do. Once you have that perspective of serving behind the scenes, raising money or recruiting for an event, your ability to complain changes drastically.

Recently, I sat down with a board that I serve on to do a little strategic planning. We had a solid, three-hour action-plan session that proved to be productive. I feel certain we could have talked for several more hours and developed 10 additional action plans, but since we are a volunteer group and had to get to our homes and jobs the next day, the meeting had to conclude.


I was so very proud of this board team. We identified good and bad things in a positive, non-confrontational manner and laughed a lot. At the end of the session, we found we had a central theme of how to attack several issues and at least some idea of how to make those ideas come to fruition.

The beauty of this board session was also that we have a healthy bank account. When this is not the case, action plans for that board and its staff are dreary. Because this board meets monthly and reviews financials and maintains a large membership, money is not an issue. Thank goodness. But not all boards operate this way.

Several of my jobs require me to work with volunteer, nonprofit members of a board and work to carry out their goals and vision for their organization. When they gather for a board meeting, they are spending their time, for free, to hear boring minutes; review the financials, which sometimes aren’t pretty; and get into discussions that may divide them into opinion groups.

Being on a board takes a person’s free time. They might otherwise spend that time completing their own full-time work projects or spend it with family. My husband serves on boards, and wouldn’t you know, his meetings tend to be on the kids' birthdays and on a few important weekends each year. I start to criticize, ask him to rethink his leadership role, but the conversation never goes far. Service is important to both of us, and we like knowing we contributed somehow to the groups that matter to us.

Being involved with a board gives you insight into the nuts and bolts of the organization. It keeps you in the loop with all kinds of industry news and information, especially the gossip. What can happen is that board members assume the members of the organization know all the same information. This is not the case. It takes strong communication between the board, staff and membership to share and keep everyone on the same page. What also happens is that boards choose to share or not share information, which is certainly their prerogative (that is why a person should serve in the first place!), but it also means you are the gatekeeper of information, and some members don’t like that.

This term of service also means you must take criticism. It means you’ll be asked to help with an issue, make a change and represent the interests of others. This should not be done lightly or with arrogance. Being on a board means you’ll find that it’s impossible to please everyone, and with the extra information coming your way, you’ll also see how and why things are the way they are. Making changes depends on funds and staff, and sometimes those things are in short supply.

Being on a board usually means raising money as well. I learned this the hard way once when I was asked to serve, thinking that I could influence programs and change curriculum. But at my first meeting the discussion quickly became about how much each board member gives and how much they can raise from others. Having a clear vision when serving on a board is obviously much more important to me now, and I try to review with my board teams exactly what their objective and purpose is when they sign up for the job.

Then there is the issue of managing a budget. This is not a difficult task when the organization has a chunk of money in savings and some cash flow, but when the group is struggling, the budget is the elephant in the room. It is hard, even impossible, to function well when money is tight. Just like a household budget, there has to be some breathing room. It’s important when a board is asked to sponsor an event or activity that they can say “yes” and feel good about it. Promoting a board’s name is essential to its existence, and the best way to do this is by sponsoring awards or events. Without a healthy bank account, this is not possible.

Though these reasons to serve on a board are both good and bad, it is still a very worthwhile activity. Even serving on a local community or school committee is a good board experience. You learn real quick who’s in charge, who wants change and who the worker bees are. I’ve found that I fill different roles on each board I serve on. In some cases, there are people more dominant than me and as long as I feel like they don’t abuse money or situations, I’m happy to be the worker bee behind the scenes. Yet there are a couple of boards that need leadership and direction, and when no one else raises their hand to help, I put mine in the air, even reluctantly!

I wrote an editorial on volunteering long ago, and I still feel the same on the importance of giving your time without pay to forward a group or objective. Being on the board, though, holding an office or managing the leadership team is a unique animal. The rewards are only internal, with maybe a small token of a gift card or handshake at the end of the term, but this kind of service must happen. I also find that those who complain or have the most negativity about something are those who don’t serve. I know of one person who works very hard behind the scenes to make events happen, but when I asked them about serving in an officer role, they replied, “Oh no, I don’t get involved that way.” Shame on them. Getting involved means a whole lot more than people realize, and I believe being at the board table should be a requirement for each of us.

McCurry writes from Colwich.

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