- Chapter 36 -


Unto many Americans, there comes an opportunity (if you consider it as such) to serve on a board of some organization devoted to pursuing a worthwhile endeavor.  What to do?  Accept or reject?  It is frequently said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, and some believe that a tremendous amount of time and effort is wasted in meetings which accomplish little or nothing.  On the positive side, however, the total effect of thousands of boards of people coming together to achieve worthwhile goals is very beneficial to our country, and the money raised through them for charitable, welfare, cultural, educational, medical and other worthwhile endeavors is invaluable. Various Opportunities for Serving on a Board Described, Especially Those Involving Boards And Committees in Non-Profit Service

Serving on a board can be rewarding.  It provides an opportunity to meet interesting people, and, if you have the aptitude and temperament for it, it can be fascinating as you view human drama being played out before you.  You are dealing with real people, not wooden pawns or playing cards, and real people have their motivations and their machinations, their declared agendas and their hidden agendas.  Then there is the challenge of making it all work, and for a good cause.

Most people serve on a board for one simple reason; somebody asked them to.  Unfortunately, not enough effort is expended by nominating committees to analyze potential board members, not only trying to match the person to the cause, but also whether or not there is a basic interest or ability to serve effectively.

A salesman called on drugstores all day.  He was active physically, constantly on the move, and had a temperament which fitted his vocation.  A friend asked him to serve on the board of Family Service Society, which he mistakenly accepted.  He never understood the organization, and was unable to contribute to the board procedures.  Furthermore, moving about as he did all day, sitting in a meeting for an hour or an hour-and-a-half made him restless.  He was miserable and felt entrapped, but he did have the good sense to resign.  This may seem ludicrous, but unfortunately, such experiences are not uncommon.

There are other reasons for a person's not being interested in board membership.  One is that he or she may not have any desire whatever to help people or to join with others to achieve their desired goals.  For example, there is a man I like very much; he is friendly, has a good sense of humor, cares well for his family, and is successful in his vocation (a scientific field).  It turns out that he has absolutely no desire for service to mankind, a fact which was discerned by a psychologist helping him to determine a vocation.  Once having identified this clearly, he cheerfully and freely admits he has this characteristic, and conducts his life accordingly.  He would not be a good member of the Salvation Army Board, or any other one for that matter, and isn't.

An additional reason why certain people would not enjoy serving on boards is that their talents do not run along the lines of sitting down with people, dealing with ideas, and deliberating about them.  Their abilities and interests may lie in other fields.  One person might prefer to type; another to read on the Radio for the Blind; another would get more satisfaction out of teaching an illiterate person to read through Operation Mainstream on a one-to-one basis.  Still others would like to lead recreational or arts and crafts groups, or to teach a Sunday School class.  Then there are those rare types who would rather put on a magic show at a children's ward in a hospital.  A person whose desires and abilities run along these or similar lines should not feel obligated to "do one's stint" on a board.

So, if you are thinking about board service, or if you know someone who is, or who consults you on the subject, here are some points to consider:

  1. Determine a worthwhile area of interest.
  2. Find out which organization(s) have boards which perform most effectively in this field by making a study and doing research.
  3. Set about becoming a board member.

Sometimes it is difficult to make up one's mind, out of the blue, on the question of areas of interest.  As any vocational psychologist knows, a helpful way of making such determinations is to ask the question, "Which would you prefer, this or that?"  Listed below are "this or that" categories which have proved to be of assistance to some people: (The names of organizations are ones in our city, which may be different or non-existent in yours, especially if you live in a smaller community, but they are just meant to be illustrations.)

  1. Welfare:

Every United Way has a list of welfare agencies which is readily available.  By the definition of the word, these are devoted to the well-being of people, especially the less fortunate, who are disadvantaged physically, psychologically, socially, or financially.  Some examples are The Salvation Army, Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, Volunteers of America, Goodwill Industries, etc.  Since the funds for most of these agencies come from the money raised by the United Way, board members are not called upon to solicit funds or contribute them.  This is an important consideration, because many people abhor fund raising, yet more and more it is becoming a requirement on most boards outside of the United Way that every board member contribute to them financially.  Of course, the individual is probably giving to the United Way anyhow, but is not required to support the specific organization of which he is a board member, in addition.

On the other hand, an invaluable way to help any community is to assist in the fund-raising efforts of the United Way.  There are also other ways to serve this organization, and one of these is to become a member of the committee which evaluates the agencies each year and approves their budgets.  This gives a participant an overview of all the agencies, and is particularly recommended for people just starting out in community service.

  1. Politics and Government:

Working for the political party of one's choice is an obvious area of activity.  There are also non-partisan organizations devoted to improving the system, such as the League of Women Voters, and, in our city, the Alliance for Good Government which seeks to encourage good candidates.

Then there are research organizations in the field of government which attract people with that kind of interest, such as the Bureau of Governmental Research which has made extensive studies of the operation and finances of our city, resulting in real improvement.  Or, there are organizations devoted to active sponsorship of positions on such issues as bond elections, state constitutional amendments, and school board activities.  An example in our community is the Metropolitan Area Committee.

  1. Cultural:

The boards of the Art Museum, Philharmonic Society, the Opera Guild, etc. may be where your interests lie.  Such activities are a good way to meet some very interesting people, and you can enjoy the cultural aspects of your community.  But before jumping in, a person should be warned that although a board member can be involved in important policy decisions, such as the choice of a new conductor for the symphony, a high proportion of the emphasis is on fund raising.  On the other hand, they tend to put on many fancy fund-raising social functions which can be lot$ of fun.  If you have money to contribute, and want to make a quick splash in the community, here is a place to do it.

  1. Health:

Most hospitals have boards, and many of them are very effective in improving medical services.  But consider this: Some people are spooked by the atmosphere of a hospital; others love it.

Then there are the organizations devoted to research and cure of dread diseases, such as heart, lung, cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and many others.  The local chapters tend to be essentially involved in fund raising, but they can be immensely satisfying to people who have loved ones afflicted with the particular disease, and who feel that the money raised for research can help prevent the problems for others.

  1. Business Development:

Many people embark on what amounts to a crusade to improve the business climate of their respective communities, and organize boards and committees especially devoted to bringing in new industry.  Some individuals are accused of engaging in self-serving activities trying to promote their own businesses, but there is nothing wrong with that if it also helps the community.  An obvious outlet for constructive business activities is through the Chamber of Commerce.

There are other business-oriented organizations, such as Junior Achievement and Distributive Education, designed to train young people for business careers.

  1. Environment:

This is an area of great interest these days, especially to young people who have a vital stake in clean air and water and toxic waste disposal.  Their activities generally involve lobbying, educating the public, and publicizing violations.  Such organizations are the Sierra Club and the Nature Center.

In other fields involving the environment, it is appealing to see how many organizations are devoted to the causes of historic preservation, such as our Preservation Resource Center, and neighborhood improvement, which includes the crime control activity of a Neighborhood Watch.

  1. Religion:

There are a myriad of church committees devoted to a wide range of goals - administrative, financial, musical, liturgical, educational, evangelical and others.  More and more, there are social outreach activities connected with religious organizations.  Choose carefully.  If your interest is to witness one on one, and to bring the Good News to other people, you may want to avoid the finance committee.

Our city has a United Way agency called the Volunteer and Information Agency.  Perhaps your community has a similar one which publishes a list of organizations, both public and private with boards and volunteer opportunities.  A study of this might help in making choices.  This agency also puts out a handsome large volume, loose leaf to make upgrading easier, called "Directory of Student Volunteer Opportunities," which is particularly valuable as so many young people are becoming interested in service either on their own or through school programs, some of which have become required.

If you know of young people who are working in this area, a strong recommendation is that an investigation be made of the bronze, silver and gold Congressional Awards given to youthful volunteers, not on a competitive basis, but for stipulated hours of service.  It is a great encouragement for them, and a model for others.  There is no charge for this, and full information is available through your U.S. Congressman or Senators.  One young woman had already put in the requisite number of hours before she even learned of a Congressional Gold Award, and was as pleased to get it as she was surprised.  She also found out that it looked great on college and job applications.

So, if a field is chosen, and an organization within that field is identified, how does one get on the board?  Most people would not see anything wrong with going into a personnel department and applying for a job at a company if that appeared to be a good place to work, but they would consider it too pushy to seek out the opportunity to serve on a board, which is supposed to be an honor, and which should only come if a person modestly hangs back and waits to be asked.

On the other hand, groups are looking for interested, enthusiastic board members, and there is nothing wrong with expressing interest.  It is hard to conceive of a single Executive Director (the professional head) of an agency who would not be responsive, and indeed very pleased, if a person walked in, and after a pleasant introduction, stated, "I have been hearing about Family Service Society, and I would appreciate it if you could spend a few minutes telling me more about your agency."  There is a difference between saying, "May I be on your board?" and saying, "Is there some way I could participate or offer my help to your agency?"  It may be that service on a support committee or even working in the office will have to precede board membership, but if a person is intelligent and interested, he or she can ultimately serve on most any board in the community.

An opinion stridently expressed by many young people in the Sixties, and to some extent the myth still exists, was that the members of the "Establishment" keep putting their own members on "all those boards" in order to control the community.  Not so.  People nominate their friends and other people they know, because these are the only choices they have.  Unfortunately, it is difficult for the Chairman of the Nominating Committee of the Red Cross, particularly in a big city, to know that a young executive who just transferred to town with Shell Oil Company served on the Red Cross Board in Midland, Texas.  It is not a matter of exclusion; it is a matter of identification, finding the interested and the capable.  It is easy to progress from the position of not having any board assignment to the position of having more potential assignments thrust at you than you can handle.  All you have to do is to perform well in your first assignment as a board member, and the news will quickly spread to other nominating committees.  Therein lies a problem.  Most people can only serve on two, or at the most three, major boards at any one time, and do an acceptable job.  Some especially active people can handle four, effectively and enjoyably, but they are very few, taking into account the busy lives most of us lead.

Above all, a person should not become a collector of boards, without proper performance, just to enjoy seeing his or her name on the masthead of the stationery, and thinking that prestige is derived from being on many boards.  The number of people who do this is amazing, but the word gets around, and one's prestige is soon erased by a reputation for non-performance.

The efficiency of a board member is not just in mathematical ratio to attendance at meetings; it is a geometric progression.  Let us assume that a board meets nine times a year, and each member is on a committee which meets three times, making a total of twelve meetings.  If a person attends five or six of these, he or she is worse than useless because the position is being taken up that might have been held by someone who would perform, and time is lost at meetings bringing that person up to date.  Also, that amount of time invested does not allow a person to learn enough about an organization to contribute to policy decisions and action.

On the other hand, attendance at nine, ten, or eleven meetings accelerates one's contributing ability.  Then there is another time investment, which I recommend highly, and that is taking the Executive Director to lunch or having leisurely meetings in the office.  These sessions can be helpful to a person's knowledge and performance because the conversation can be more informal and perhaps confidential.

Learn To Say "No"

A trap exists which well-meaning nominating committee members lay for others, to the detriment of their agencies and organizations.  Numerous times I have heard, when being invited to be on a board, "It won't take much time."  (One man said I did not have to attend at all.)  Time is one of the important elements of effective board membership.  If you don't have the time, don't do it.  Learn to say, "No," and here is a suggestion as to how to do it:

"Thank you so much, Jim, for inviting me to be on your board.  I am honored, and I know what good work your agency does.  However, I am on three boards right now, and up to my eyeballs in volunteer activities.  As a matter of fact, if my wife heard of my considering another board, she would stick me with a fork!  I could not do the kind of job you want done, and although I hate to do this to a good friend, I just have to say no."
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