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‘Be prepared to roll up your sleeves’ – the life of an NGO Board Member
Whilst NGOs exist for the benefit of their beneficiaries, NGO boards exist for the benefit of the organisation itself. Acting as stewards and protecting the interests of an organisations intended beneficiaries, trustees often have legal, moral and financial responsibility for the organisation, which is no mean feat given that trustees of NGO boards must give their time and expertise for free. Recognizing the critical and voluntary role that trustees bring to the table, we caught up with four of our Register members who also double up as Trustees, to find out the ins and outs of life on an NGO Board.
Many of our members first became involved in NGO boards upon invitation. Begay Jabang, Senior Finance and Business Partner at the Brooke, was first invited to become a trustee for Action Aid. “I was eager to get involved not only because it was a cause I believe in, but also it gave me the opportunity to get to know my own country a little better through the work of the organisation.” Joseph Kaggwa, Humentum Associate and Consultant, had a similar experience, joining a board by invitation and being similarly keen to be of use; “the first year of life for an organisation is often difficult and NGOs need good financial guidance. There were aspects which I felt I could help out with and provide some support to the organisation.”
Being a board member can be a very different experience depending on your role, and on the size and type of the organisation you support. Esther Ruth Akello, Finance Director of the Ugandan organisation Child’s i Foundation, also sits as a trustee on the board of a separate local NGO. Esther tells us although ensuring accountability is the essence of trusteeship, her role can include quite diverse responsibilities; “the main role of any board is to ensure there is management oversight, to ensure that the director is in tangent with the strategy of the organisation as well as to continue mission development. As a finance professional I’ve also been involved in ensuring that they are achieving value for money and recommending quality finance professionals.’
Whilst Esther acknowledges that her own trustee role is ‘not hands-on management,’ independent consultant and register member Ketty Lubandi advises that smaller organisations may need more active support; “sometimes with small local organisations there are issues of capacity and you are more likely to get dragged into operational issues” For this reason, Joseph Kaggwa recommended that prospective board members should be aware of the time commitment of being a trustee; “willingness is a given but availability is critical, especially in a finance related board role – as a Treasurer I have the responsibility of counter-signing cheques for major payments so I have to be easily reachable, otherwise it would slow down the organisation’s operations.” Indeed, many of our members noted that the difference between trusteeship of an older, larger organisation and a smaller, newer NGO, as Begay Jabang recalled; ‘established NGOs can often be very well-oiled machines and there in no need to get involved in operational issues. However, if you become a trustee of an NGO in its infancy you are likely to get much more operationally involved, so be prepared to roll up your sleeves.”
Despite the challenges and time commitments our members emphasized the positive experiences they have gained by being trustees. Ketty Lubandi highlighted how trusteeship had been an excellent learning opportunity for her; ‘gaining invaluable experience of NGO governance is a real benefit of being a board member.’ Many of our members noted that sitting on NGO boards also gave them a real insight into how different organisations work and grow. Begay Jabang recalled how being a trustee during the recession in Uganda gave her hope for the future; ‘one positive about being a board member during the recession was that I was gladdened by the fact that the charity did not suffer during this difficult period, but instead continuously improved its capabilities and got stronger.’
So what makes a good board member? Our register members were full of helpful hints and wise words. Esther Akello emphasized the need for concern and compassion; “after the war in Uganda there were parts of the country left without structure. There were problems with programme implementation at the ground and lack of experience on the grass roots level of NGOs. It’s important to have patience and understanding.” Everyone emphasized the importance of commitment, with Ketty Lubandi noting, “you have to be committed, as the role is voluntary unlike in the corporate sector. You’ll have to be willing to set aside time to devote to the NGO, so you must take an interest in the organisation you will be serving.” Our members also had some wisdom to impart to NGOs themselves, with Joseph Kaggwa advising that ‘organisations should be very clear as to who they would like on their boards and the specific skills they need.’
All our members noted the importance of having qualified and experienced finance professionals on an NGO board. We hope that many of you will also consider rolling up your sleeves and share your skills and talents in order to help an organisation strive.
Begay Jabang’s Top Tips for NGO Board Members
- You should have a genuine interest in the organisation you are supporting and the issues it tackles. You should work towards having a deeper knowledge of these issues; speak to the people on the ground at the country level, and hear from the beneficiaries you are targeting. Know the impact of the organisation on the intended beneficiaries.
- You should have technical experience that you can offer. You are there to add value to the organisation, and should therefore have deep knowledge and experience of the subject matter of the charity, or be able to contribute in the operational fields such as HR, law or finance.
- You must be open and ready to learn. It’s important to understand that just because you have experience in one area, doesn’t mean that you know everything. It’s important to visit country programmes when you can, attend conferences, and speak to the people you are serving.
- Be principled – don’t entertain compromise. Whilst it is important to be flexible you should remain a person of integrity.
- You should be disciplined with a strong work ethic, especially when a board member of a start-up organisation. Allow time to read the board papers and to really understand the issues.
- Be humble enough to say when you don’t know.
- Have good interpersonal skills. It’s important to get on with other members of the board as well as with the Senior Management Team. Equally, it’s important to be able to listen as well as to communicate. There will be many voices and it’s important to be able to reflect upon and analyse what you have heard.
- Be respectful of others; be respectful to everyone. It won’t just be senior leadership and other board members you have contact with. In some organisations you will meet those working on the ground; they merit the same respect and attention.
- Get to know the staff.