The Roles and Responsibilities of a Board

Through the years, the Murdock Trust has learned firsthand that “leadership matters.”  While a number of factors play a critical role in the flourishing of individual organizations and the nonprofit sector as a whole, few if any are more important than an effective board of directors.  These men and women “hold in trust” an organization’s mission for the future.   It is a profound responsibility.

What is the board’s basic responsibility to the organization it leads?  Board members are often called “trustees” because they are expected to hold the mission and resources of an organization in “Trust” for the future. Stated differently, it is the responsibility of the board and executive leadership to assess the overall execution of the organization in light of its efforts to fulfill its mission.  Often referred to as governance, which means to steer, influence, and control, among its many activities the board is responsible to establish mission and direction, ensure that an organization has the proper programs to fulfill its mission and resources and leadership to execute to implement the mission, and provide legal and fiduciary oversight on behalf of the people served, the organization’s members and supporters, and the public (Board Fundamentals, Board Source, pg. 9).

Recent surveys suggest that boards are often not operating at full capacity.  At times the specific difficulties and challenges that a board may face are due to confusion or even a lack of understanding of the extent of a board’s roles and responsibilities.  For an organization to flourish, board members must be willing to accept the basic role as a “trustee,” as well as embrace the additional roles and responsibilities associated with excellent boardsmanship. 

What are these roles?  It should be noted that there are a number of ways in which the roles and responsibilities of board members may be summarized.  One illustration, articulated by John Pearson (John Pearson Associates) divides board members responsibilities into “Three Hats” (governance, participant, and volunteer).

Governance Hat

The “Governance” hat is typically considered the most basic, yet the foremost of responsibilities. It is the responsibility of the board and executive leadership to assess the overall execution of the organization in light of its efforts to fulfill its mission. Often referred to as governance, which means to steer, influence, and control, the board is responsible to establish mission and direction, ensure that an organization has the proper resources of funds and leadership to execute the mission, and provide legal and fiduciary oversight on behalf of the people served, the organization’s members and supporters, and the public (Board Fundamentals, Board Source, pg. 9). All board members wear their “Governance” hats at board meetings.

Participant Hat

The “Participant” hat includes those events in a calendar year that board members are expected to attend, which could include a fundraising event, a public relations opportunity, or meeting to network with other organizations. While board members may be introduced, these events are not board meetings where the “Governance” hat is worn. In advance, we may ask for your help in some way at an event and so you might be called upon to also wear your “Volunteer” hat.

Volunteer Hat

When a board member does wear a “Volunteer” hat, the responsibilities are probably similar to those of other volunteers to the organization. It is important to refrain from bringing volunteer issues into the board meeting so other board members won’t be tempted to micro-manage staff functions and neglect board functions.

The responsibilities of board members are often summarized as a list of 8-12 items.  For example, BoardSource, an organization that seeks to build nonprofit boards and encourage board service, offers a list of 10 board responsibilities.  Click here to see the BoardSource list.

Learn More

If you are interested in learning more about participation in the Board Leadership Initiative, please click here email Mary Hill.