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Why Asking Your BFF to Join Your Board of Directors May Be a Big Mistake

When starting a public charity, many founding Executive Directors are tempted to invite their friends and family to join their Board of Directors. It's understandable. Asking your closest friends and confidants is an easy ask at a time when you are already overwhelmed with getting a charity up-and-running. With this tactic, you can be fairly sure that you will create a board that supports your vision and will offer few objections to your start-up plans.

Founders often think that they'll get a starter board in place and make  strategic changes when the time is right. Unfortunately, it's rarely that easy.

The relationship with the Board of Directors is inherently an odd one. As a founding Executive Director, when you are inviting a person to join your board, you are essentially inviting them to be your boss. If you are inviting a group of people who are inexperienced board members, you are then tasked with guiding them on how to best serve the organization, in essence how to effectively be your boss!

The legal duties of the Board of Directors can be summarized into three categories (Source: Grantspace.org):

  1. Duty of care: Board members are expected to actively participate in organizational
    planning and decision-making and to make sound and informed judgments.
  2. Duty of loyalty: Whenacting on behalf of the organization, board members must put the
    interests of the nonprofit before any personal or professional concerns and avoid potential conflicts of interest.
  3. Duty of obedience: Board members must ensure that the organization complies with all
    applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations, and that it remains committed to its established mission.

In addition, the board must maintain oversight of the charity's finances.

In the first stages of a start-up charity, many founding Executive Directors believe they want an inactive board, one that meets the minimum legal requirements and allows the Executive Director to realize his vision for the organization with little input from others. Unfortunately, they quickly find out that this approach can backfire.

Once the glow of being able to "do what you want" wears off from a starter board, Executive Directors generally find themselves overwhelmed and badly needing the help of an active board. To function at its best, a charity should seek board members that have diverse life and work experiences, and new contacts to offer the organization. In addition to the legal responsibilities, a Board of Directors serves as a support system for the Executive Director --- serving as mentors and advisers, providing important networking relationships, and helping to fundraise for the organization.

When the Executive Director begins to feel the pressure of trying to do too much on his own, consultants like me are often hired to help ease the difficult transition from a founder-driven organization to a mission-driven organization. This means finding diplomatic ways to convince existing board members to step aside without disrupting the founder's lifelong relationships with them --- a very tricky business indeed, and a major distraction from the charity's mission at a critical time in its growth. 

In order to save relationships, founders may compromise, allowing disengaged board
members to stay, and inevitably negatively impacting the Board's dynamic --- 
just as one employee with a poor attitude can exponentially influence a team of employees.

When starting a charity, it's easy to get caught up in the whirlwind excitement of realizing your vision.  After all, your ultimate goal is to create positive change, to help as many people as you can, and to start now!  It can be a buzz kill to think about the business side of running
a charity.  Believe me, it's even more of a buzz kill later when the Executive Director finds himself choosing between lifelong friendships and making his dream charity a reality.  Carefully and strategically inviting people to join the board may take more time, but it will
strengthen the organization and spare everyone a lot of potential heartache along the way.

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Mark2121

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