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Serving on a board of directors can be a rewarding experience that marries personal convictions and professional expertise. But, as with any role, it’s important to fully understand the responsibilities and expectations associated with board service.

In a panel discussion at On Board Chicago 2017, seasoned board members offered their tips for success in the boardroom to new directors. The session, entitled “View from the Boardroom, The Dos and Don’ts of Being an Effective Board Member,” was moderated by Susan Chamberlin, ’13, principal gift officer at Chicago Booth. Panelists included David M. Kirchheimer, ’78, former chief financial officer, Oaktree Capital Management; Jennifer V. Montague, LAB ’87, MBA ’97, director of strategy and technology, ComEd; and Peter Philpott, ’93, vice president, Robert W. Baird & Co.

Read on for their eight essential dos and don’ts for board members.

  1. Do: Insist on passion. Make sure you’re passionate about the nonprofit, and don’t bring on anyone who hasn’t demonstrated passion for your organization’s cause.
  2. Do: Understand the mission of the organization. While this may seem obvious, it’s important that you can clearly communicate what your nonprofit does to potential donors or incoming board members. Practice your organization’s elevator pitch!
  3. Do: Get up to speed quickly. Before the first meeting, try to get together with veteran board members so they can explain the bylaws and catch you up on current initiatives. This is a good practice for all new board members.
  4. Do: Focus on efficiency. It’s reasonable to expect the executive director to send materials for upcoming board meetings out a week in advance and highlight topics for discussion. Ensure meetings are efficient by focusing on topics of consequence.
  5. Don’t assume. Understand what the expectations are from the start, particularly the dollar amount you’ll be expected to contribute or solicit. Don’t be afraid to ask staff or other board members specific questions.
  6. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Good board members show up at meetings, are prepared, and have done their homework. If you put in time and effort, you will find your board experience more rewarding and meaningful.
  7. Don’t be afraid to “test drive” potential new members. When it comes time to grow your board, get to know potential new board members by having them serve on a non-governing board committee. That way they’ll learn the mission and rhythm of the organization. It will also give incumbent board members time to determine whether the prospective director would be an effective addition to the board.
  8. Don’t insist on perfection. Boards are composed of human beings, so mistakes will happen. Don’t let unrealistic expectations get in the way of what you’re there to do—move the mission of the organization forward.