Who should you have on your nonprofit's board?
When and where we spoke
10:30 a.m. Jan. 9, 2010 during the Journalism that Matters Unconference at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Who showed up
Jessica Partnow, president and co-founder of Common Language Project, a Seattle journalism Web startup Jessica Durkin, creator of inothernews.us, a directory of hyperlocal sites around the U.S., and board member of National Association of Hispanic Journalists Michael Andersen, founder of Portland Afoot, a newsmagazine about low-car life in Portland, and representative for a nascent collective of Oregon journalists Lion Kimbro, founder of Jigsaw Renaissance, a collaborative maker space in Seattle Roger Gafke, program-development director of Reynolds Journalism Institute in Columbia, Mo.
What we learned
People are more likely to agree to time-limited commitments. Give your board members 2-year terms, for example.
Even volunteers want job descriptions. Lay out an hourly (or monetary) commitment and tell them exactly what task or tasks you want them to do.
- One philosophy is to treat your board as a list of on-call volunteers who have minimal time commitments for board-related duties. Instead of meetings, they commit to taking on one task at a time. In other words, someone calls them and says, "Will you volunteer to do task X? This is what it will require and this is why you're best for the job."
Some board members want to know quite a lot about the operations of an organization -- not least because they may be able to help. If staff is launching a project, it doesn't hurt to keep the board informed about it.
Resolve board-staff disputes by finding their common interests: declining membership, for example, is a concern to both. Frame your proposals as a solution to common problem X.
Find a "grand old person" to mediate between young, ambitious board members and executive directors who may be threatened by them.
In some cases, the mere existence of a board can be a way to force dispute resolution between members: "if you two don't settle this, the board will."
Miscellaneous tips for nonprofitry
Surprise! Many cities, Seattle included, require nonprofits to have business licenses.
At Jigsaw Renaissance, the founder deliberately avoids board membership, to communicate the fact that you don't have to be on the board to make a difference in the group.
Registering with the IRS as a 501(c)3 currently costs $850 no matter your revenue ... but sometime in 2010, it's supposed to fall to $200 for people who file electronically.
It's often a good idea for nonprofit startups to sign on to umbrella organizations, which exist here and there around the country. The Independent Media Center, for example (indymedia.org), collects 10 percent of everything you raise but offers a bank account, legal expertise, etc.