Nancy Cowles

What do you consider to be the primary role of a board member?

Oversight is a key role, since a board is the guiding force behind an organization. Each board member should participate in strategic discussions, as well as fulfill their duties to keep the organization running and in compliance with best practices and regulations.

What qualities do effective and cohesive boards of directors share?

Effective boards are able to respect and listen to diverse viewpoints and, hopefully, like each other. On an effective board, every board member feels their service is important to the organization.

As executive director, what do you expect your new board members to do during their first six months?

I hope new board members do three things as soon as possible.

  1. Learn as much as they can about the organization and issues.
  2. Talk with other board members to get different perspectives.
  3. Introduce the organization to their connections and start to be a booster for the cause. When you are just starting something and excited about it, that's a great time to convey that to others. When your colleagues ask "what’s new?" you have something to say!

Do you have any advice for Booth alumni who are interested in joining a nonprofit board?

First, find an organization you can be passionate about. It may not be a cause you have been involved with in the past, but it should be something you are compelled to champion. An organization is looking for a lot of your time, and you’ll be asked to talk to others about it and raise money. If you aren’t excited about the cause, all that is hard to do.

Second, determine how to best use your skills. What role can you take on to move the organization forward? If you are just another warm body at board meetings, you won’t be fulfilled, and the organization won’t gain from your skills. That said, a good nonprofit organization will guide you in doing all of this—you don’t have to have all the answers before you start.

Nancy Cowles is the executive director of Kids in Danger, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting children by improving children’s product safety.