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Not for profit boards, the good, the bad and the ugly

Jon Batt. 20 October 2022, 9:32 pm

Jon is a Wellington technology and strategy consultant who works with the public sector and start-ups. He is an associate member of ITP and a member of the Institute of Directors. Learn more at his website:

The truth is that it's hard being on a board. Most people don't realise how much time it takes. And even more people don't realise how much effort goes into being good at it. It can be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have, or it can leave you frustrated and exhausted. Most NFP boards are made up of volunteers who come together to make decisions in the best interests of their organisation.

Here’s a few notes on the good, the bad and the ugly of being on NFP boards.

The lovely bits.

It offers chances for professional development, and to see things from a different point of view. It's also a way to gain exposure for yourself, which may lead to business opportunities down the road (if you’re into that kind of thing). I've been on a few boards, mostly small not-for-profits. I've loved it.

You get to meet interesting people and make connections with them (including other board members). The first board I was on, one of the other board members was an ex- public sector CEO. He was incredibly generous with his time and wisdom, and he taught me a frankly staggering amount about governance, boards, policy and personalities, but also about more concrete skills like how to run an effective meeting and how to think about myself and my role. He was an absolute life changer.

Learning these new skills and gaining experience gives you things you can use in other parts of your life. They help you get better jobs or promotions - or even just better understand what it’s like to be the person making decisions. Having that experience can make it easier to understand others that you work with or work for, which in turn can make you better in your own role.

It's incredible to see an organisation change and grow and know that you were a part of it. You get to see the impact your decisions have on people's lives, often in very tangible ways. The best thing is that you can see that your work is making a difference — even if it's just to one person at a time.

You get to be proud of what an organisation does, and know that you helped make it happen . It's incredible to see an organisation change and grow and know that you were a part of it. 

The tough bits.

You need to be responsible for your own professional development. If you want to be on an effective board, you need to do some homework outside of meetings so you can contribute meaningfully during the meeting. You need to keep up to speed with what’s changing in your environment - like the new Incorporated Societies Act changes in this piece. Keeping up to date is essential to avoid costly mistakes, or in some cases, breaking the law.

You need to do work outside of meetings. Board members are active participants in their organisations' activities outside of meetings — this can be attending events and fundraisers, participating in strategic planning sessions, getting to know new members or being a part of recruitment. It can be hard to balance everything that needs to be done. 

You will be working with people who have different opinions than you do about what needs to happen and how it should happen. This can make it challenging to reach consensus on things like budgets or new initiatives.

There’s also the pressure of the role. When you take on a role as a board member it is not only your reputation that is on the line, but also that of the people around you and the organisation as a whole. You need to ensure that meetings are run successfully and decisions are made in an efficient manner so as not to waste anyone's time or money.

In the end…

NFP boards are hard work that require a lot of effort from their members. To be able to help others and guide an organisation is just incredible, but there's no denying that serving on an NFP board takes time and determination. In my experience it's also one of the most rewarding experiences someone could possibly have.



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