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Carl Clark, M.D.

President and CEO, Mental Health Center of Denver, Board Member, National Council for Mental Wellbeing

Serving the Community by Being on a Nonprofit Board

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Serving on a nonprofit board of directors is an honor and a privilege. Done well, it’s also a fair amount of work. I should know. I have served on dozens of nonprofit boards throughout my career and as the president and CEO of the Mental Health Center of Denver, I’m answerable to my own board of directors. Having sat on both sides of the boardroom, I want to share with you my understanding of what makes a good nonprofit organization board member.

Understand and be passionately committed to the organization’s mission.

Many nonprofit organizations are established to meet a community need. The mission of the organization might be to end homelessness or to make sure everyone who needs it is has access to behavioral health care. Most nonprofits work on so-called “wicked” problems – multifactorial issues that are not easy to resolve. The goal of the organization, and the board that oversees it, is to grow its assets to meet the self-identified community need. As a board member, you likely are passionate about the organization’s mission. In addition, you need to know the activities of the organization and have a deep understanding of how they are using these activities in service of their mission.

Several years ago, the Mental Health Center of Denver changed our mission to include a focus on well-being. This change in our mission reflected a belief that mental health and well-being are about more than just the absence of illness. An example of this shift is seen at the Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being, which includes an urban farm, hydroponic greenhouse, dental clinic, community kitchen, a gym, a school and daycare facilities. We provide behavioral health, but we are also about community engagement and well-being. This is redefining what community mental health care is – it’s about impacting the social determinants of health.

Know the organization’s finances and how the business runs.

An organization without money won’t be successful in meeting its mission. You need to understand the organization’s finances and how the business is run, including its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT). Many nonprofit board members come from diverse backgrounds, and this is a strength. For example, my current board includes a hedge fund investor, someone who runs a foundation and the former CFO of our airport. They don’t have to be experienced in treating anxiety disorders; they have to consider what the organization needs to do to treat anxiety disorders.

Do your homework.

Understanding the organization and how it runs requires board members to do their homework. The executive leadership of most nonprofit organizations will provide board members with reports about such things as governance, finances, human resources, IT, etc., ahead of the board meeting. As a board member, your job is to read these materials and be prepared to discuss them, if needed.

Ideally, in a well-run board meeting, these regular reports can be grouped together in what is called a consent agenda. Unless there is something that needs to be fleshed out, these items can be approved together as part of the consent agenda. Then the board can focus its time and attention on strategy development and refinement. In addition, if you are serving on a board that’s outside your field of expertise, make sure you are up to date on trends in the industry. You bring your general knowledge of how businesses run, but you need to understand the specifics of the world in which your nonprofit organization operates.

Participate in strategy development.

The most important role of a nonprofit board of directors is to help an organization develop, refine and respond to an overall strategy designed to meet its mission. Often, the board will meet annually to discuss overall strategy; frequently, the organization’s executive leadership participates in this high-level meeting. An organization’s strategic plan may focus on a period of one to three years; with the pace of change, that’s about as far out as anyone can reasonably see.

Subsequent board meetings can focus on discussing different parts of the overall strategy and making course corrections where trends in the industry demand it. For example, since 2008, the behavioral health workforce has shrunk by 14 percent. How does an organization meet its mission with a smaller workforce? Strategy discussions should form the bulk of a board’s regular meeting; report outs can be left to the consent agenda.

Serve as a window to the community.

Depending on the size and age of the nonprofit organization of the board you serve, and depending on what sources of funding it relies on, you may be asked to fundraise. However, even if you are not directly asking for money, your role is to make connections in the community between the organization and those who may want to support it. As a board member of a nonprofit, especially one that serves people with mental illnesses and addictions, your role is to be a window into the community. One way to do this is through storytelling.

Use data to tell a compelling story.

There are many metrics a nonprofit organization uses to measure success. For example, in behavioral health, these may include answers to the following questions: How many people do we serve? How quickly are they being seen? Are they getting better? How many have we helped get a job? How many have found housing? As a board member, you can use this data to help determine whether the organization is addressing the community need it set out to tackle. You can also use this information to tell a compelling story about the vital role this particular nonprofit plays in the health and well-being of your community.

Nonprofit organizations are the lifeblood of a community’s social safety-net, and members of the board of directors are their guiding force. Roll up your sleeves and prepare to dig in; it’s one of the most satisfying volunteer opportunities you’ll ever love.