Coming aboard a board: NYSSCPA members share their experiences
By CHRIS GAETANO
CPAs are busy professionals, and yet many of them find the time to volunteer their expertise as board members for community groups in whose mission they believe. Despite the gumption it takes to add another task to an already packed schedule, though, serving on an organization’s board of directors for the first time can feel like a daunting task. But as long as one approaches the experience with the right mindset and prepares beforehand, it doesn’t have to be a source of anxiety, according to numerous NYSSCPA members with board service under their belts.
When serving on a board, especially for the first time, it’s easy to feel doubts about your ability to do what’s needed to be a productive board member, said Rochester Chapter member Antoinette Spina, who has served on a number of both for-profit and nonprofit organization boards. Spina began serving on nonprofit boards in 1985 at the Center for Dispute Settlement, which provides training and mediation services related to resolving conflict without litigation. She served on that board for six years, but remembers feeling anxious herself when she first started out.
“But they would not ask [you to join] if they didn’t think you had the talents to contribute to the board,” said Spina.
The first thing to consider—even before agreeing to join—is what the board is looking to get from your involvement.
Spina noted that she once joined a board thinking its members wanted her because of her financial acumen. It turned out, however, that they asked her to join because they felt she, as a CPA, had a lot of potential fund-raising contacts.
Northeast Chapter member Katharine K. Doran, having transitioned from volunteer to board member at her local United Way, agreed, stressing that people also need to ask themselves why they want to serve on a board.
“If you’re just doing it to build a résumé and ... not make a difference, you’re not going to be successful,” said Doran, who currently serves as a member of the New York State Board for Public Accountancy.
Becoming a successful board member means remaining committed to the organization’s mission and staying active on the various committees that run it, said Spina.
“If they do anything illegally and you’re not [there], you’re still liable,” she said.
What being an active board member does not mean, however, is micromanaging the organization’s operations. The role of a board member is to keep the organization focused on its overall mission, which entails setting broad strategic goals. Less experienced board members “have a tendency to micromanage rather than keep an eye on the big picture,” said Doran.
It’s not a board member’s responsibility to “decide which copier is best and get involved in those decisions,” Spina said.
Before attending the first board meeting, you should learn as much as you can about the board itself, said NYSSCPA President-elect Gail M. Kinsella, a member of the Society’s Syracuse Chapter who also serves on the boards of a university foundation and a commercial bank.
Learn the meeting schedule, what the expectations are, what sort of time commitment you’re looking at by joining the board, and the type of materials you’ll receive in advance of meetings, Kinsella said.
Premeeting research should also include examining the organization’s financial statements to get a better understanding of what the board is doing right—or potentially wrong—in terms of its leadership, said Queens/Brooklyn Chapter member Jeffry R. Haber, chair of the statewide Not-for-Profit Organizations Committee. Haber suggested reviewing the organization’s annual reports and the minutes from at least the past two board meetings. New board members should also check out the last few tax returns and see whether there were any recent upper-level management changes, which could indicate instability, said Haber.
Current NYSSCPA Board of Directors member and Manhattan/Bronx Chapter member Pei-Cen Lin, who has past experience on a variety of boards, recommended talking to other board members— particularly predecessors—to get a feel for what the board’s culture is like and what the responsibilities are.
In addition to getting to know your fellow board members, new appointees should also meet with and talk to the organization’s staff, according to Kinsella. When Kinsella was first approached to join the board of the United Way of Central New York, she met with the chief financial officer, the treasurer, the executive director and the president “so I could get a flavor of what was what,” she said. Haber compared joining a board to entering a theater in the middle of a movie. “You want to get caught up on the parts you miss” by talking to the other board members beforehand, he said. Ask questions—and know when to listen Learning doesn’t stop with prep work, Kinsella said. When you’re new to a board, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions, since the senior members don’t mind bringing new members up to speed. At the same time, she added, it’s important to listen, because it takes at least a few meetings to really understand the board’s dynamic. Board participation means striking a fine balance between knowing when to speak and when to listen, according to Kinsella. It’s important to ask questions; just be sure you’re asking them in the right venue. The full board meeting might not be the place to do it. New board members are often very much one thing or the other, said Haber.
“Usually, mistakes are in the extreme, either coming on and being too vocal and active and trying to push the organization in one direction, or coming on and not saying enough of what they are thinking,” he said. Overall, though, as a new board member, you should feel confident that you have something to offer the organization, said Lin. Show “that [you] are attentive to the issues that are under discussion and not … afraid to speak up when [you] have an opinion.”