3 Key Roles of NGO Board Members

NGO Board Pillars

For years now I’ve been involved in NGOs and I’m constantly being surprised with how people perceive Board Members and how Board Members themselves perceive their role. To some, a Board is a group of people who endlessly do meetings after meetings with no avail and to others, it’s some mythical, grandiose, elitist group who got special powers to lead the organization. So let me help you demystify all that…

My involvement ranges from small local clubs to a national organizations to branches of international organizations.  Irrespective of shape, size or topic of those NGOs, I can easily draw a line of similarity among them.

To start with, the Board is sometimes called Board of Directors, Steering Committee, Executive Board or Executive Committee, so in spite of the naming diversity, the roles and responsibilities stay the same.

So let’s talk about the core of the issue. Board members have 3 key roles that form the pillars of any NGO and are as follows:

Decision Making: Board member are usually the founding members or are elected members that lead the organization. In this context, all major decision making in the organization goes through them. Now it has been noticed over and over again that many Board Members become passive and rather apathetic to decisions being taken, which makes the whole organization go biased towards the opinions of the remaining Board Members. So if you’re on a Board of an NGO and you see this happening around you, don’t freak out, you’re not alone…its a trend!

Yet it’s important to deal with this issue as it is crucial to have all Board Members involved in all decisions or else you’ll start seeing resistance and conflicts arising here and there every once in a while, especially from those same inactive Board Members.

What makes decision making in NGOs different from Private Sector or Governmental Institutions, is the fact that everyone’s opinion matters and most decisions are done either democratically or through consensus, so it should never be a one man show. If it seems to be or become a one man show, then you know it’s about time to change some things…

Organizational/Executive/Functional: In addition to having decision making role, all Board have a distribution of roles and responsibilities where the most common structure is “President, Vice President, General Secretary, Treasurer & Accountant” thus each of those individuals not only has his decision making role, but also a functional role to play, whether it’s taking care of financials, or internal communication or following up on tasks or heading committees..etc. Thus if those tasks and responsibilities are implemented properly, you would’ve successfully built the second pillar of the NGO to ensure that it stands tall and becomes sustainable. When this role is done properly, the internal dynamics of the organization start functioning properly.

Jack-of-All-Traders: Yes you read it right, as soon as you become a Board Member of an NGO you suddenly get to become a jack of all trades as your responsibilities will expand beyond what you expect. So you roll up your sleeves and you start doing tasks related to strategic planning, outreach, public relations, proposal writing, volunteer management, project management, reporting,  web development, graphic design, fundraising, training, consulting, event organizing and so on and so forth. So when you’re joining the Board of an NGO, its not just about doing your decision making or your functional role, but you’re expected to be involved at all levels, in all your projects and operations and to become well knowledgeable about them to assist, support and improve what your organization does.

So in a nutshell, I can say those 3 pillars are what makes a healthy Board and thus a healthy organization if they were implemented properly and professionally. If you’re a Board Member, and you feel you’re missing out on any of those…then double check with your team as you are probably holding your organization back because are doing them. Whereas if you’re doing all three and you feel other Board Members aren’t, then its about time you share the workload with them.

On a last note, properly leading an NGO can be as consuming and demanding, if not more demanding, then leading your own company due to the social factor of it and having several decision makers with you on equal levels of authority, ownership and responsibility…

So if you’re a Board Member on an NGO… God bless you! and if you know someone who is…now you know why they do so many meetings! hehehe

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28 thoughts on “3 Key Roles of NGO Board Members

  1. Thaaanks for enlightening us Afif 😉 i have another pillar if I may:
    – Since it’s an NGO (everyone is volunteering their time), board members may need to be prepared to eventually play “Jokers”. i.e. filling the gaps of those who do not perform(& I know what I’m talking about, hehehehe 🙂


  2. Thanks for the insights Afif! I am on the board of a local NGO in Ecuador. Now that Ive moved back to Ecuador, I am starting to get more actively involved once again with the board and the institution more broadly. I found your article helpful as I think through what a productive role & contribution should look like. To me, one of the key contributions a board member can make is to bring their own insights, expertise and contacts to bear in favor of the organization, and to provide counsel to the executive director in strategic decision…

    • Hello Joel,

      Glad to receive your feedback and to know you’re moved to Ecuador… did you leave IYF or?

      As for bringing your own insights, expertise and contacts in favor of the organization…that is definitely right… and infact it shapes how you to your decisions, what functional role you make and what not… so it’s inter-related one way or another.

      Keep me posted with your updates and let me know if I can be of help,



  3. Thanks Afif for highlighting the “Jack of all Trades” bit. Being on an NGO board is sure a worthy cause and affords one to wear all sorts of hats while at it. How about the fund raising bit–how much should board members who may not be founders be involved in. And when only one voice is being heard (particularly of the founder) should the other members (the coopted ones) call it a day?
    Thanks much for this interesting and very relevant article

    • Hello Tembi,

      I understand your concern concerning Fundraising and Decision Making…. here’s what I think. In general, not all NGOs have the Board Members do the Fundraising, in many cases there is a Fundraising Committee/Department/Unit or atleast some specialized Fundraising Officers/Directors who take care of the fundraising work and the Boards just support when and if possible.

      Nevertheless, if in your case the Board is doing the Fundraising, then I believe the biggest role should be for the Treasurer/Accounting or personal responsible of the organization’s financial matters. He/she needs to be in charge of this while involving the rest of the Board, other Staff and Volunteers..etc.

      As for decision making, well if only one voice is being heard…something is wrong…it shouldn’t be a one-man-show… because if it is then there are 2 scenarios: 1- The rest of the Board are not up to their positions and thus they shouldn’t have their “voices heard” or 2 – The founder is leading the organization in the wrong way which will lead the qualified and elected Board Members to leave…. in both cases weakening the organization overall.

      So I would recommend you raise a red flag and fix things up, and usually its just a matter of actually sitting with the founder..one-on-one and explaining to him/her how important it is for all Board Members that their voice be heard and that they take lead in some places, for it to be a balanced organization with strong roots that ensure its sustainability.

      Let me know if that helps…


  4. Thanks for your article, I really like it. Now I am working for a National Institute but also joining an NGO’s project as an assistant, so I have chances to experience in both types of organization, My dream or my carrer objective is to become a Board member of an NGO in Vietnam in the future. I hope to have chances to be tranined or to experience more in this field.

  5. Hello Afif,

    Thanks for sharing your experience with us! However, allow me to disagree on one trait, and add another one.

    “Jack of all trades” …would often be a master of none!

    Yes it is true that board members are often put in situations where they have to do multiple tasks…but this is a very unhealthy situation. It may reflect that the NGO either does not have sufficient human resources, or that its present resources are not performing well. In a nutshell, it may reflect a gap. When as a board member I am put in a position to do graphic design and training, when my position is a Secretary, for instance, well…this begs the question: Where is our graphic designer? Where is our trainer? It is not my task as a secretary to do any of these, for the simple reason that I am no expert in them. Doing them may do more harm than benefit.

    Yes, ideally, any member of an organization is better when he/she is multi-talented, but this is not always the case. Every member or board member has his/her main talent and qualifications which are often unique from the rest and it would be most efficient for each board member to do what he or she knows best…and they may be more than one skill, but not too much. Definitely not “all trades”.

    So for me, I would substitute the “jack of all trades” with “delegation and recruitment”. The board member should be able to delegate the right tasks to the right NGO members. If these members are not found, his/her task becomes ‘recruiting’ new members. This is much more professional and efficient than having to do the task by him/her self, especially when it is beyond his/her skill.

    And allow me to add one more pillar to your list : Being a role model.

    The board in all organizations is often looked up to. They are expected to set the standards which all members should follow. This is why every board member should act as a role model in his/her position from things such as professionalism, punctuality, proactivity and even the way they dress. Members look at the details and being a board member is about leading by example, in every detail.

    I hope that helped 🙂


    • Hello Nader,

      Glad to receive your email and I do like your perspective on it.

      When I mentioned Jack-of-all-Trades it is going to be true irrespective of the size of the NGO, because if you are going to grow and do things properly, you need to keep growing, where resources are not always available. So sometimes when you need something done, you don’t have the luxury of paying for it or the luxury of going out to recruit someone to do it and then delegate it to them and what not…so you will end up doing it yourself. Now if the task itself is going to be repetitive and there is a growing dependency for it in the organization, then yes as a Board Member you will need to go through the proper process of recruiting someone to take care of it…yet until then…what do you do? Just sit not do the work or make sure to get it done?

      Now definitely the Board Members shouldn’t keep on doing everything themselves, as you said, they should delegate, and this happens with growth, so with time they start delegating more and more, yet more tasks will pop up as the growth continues, thus new things need to be done where no one yes is assigned to them, so who does those new tasks? By default, it starts with Board taking ownership, figuring out what is needed, how its done and if its going to be repetitive, that is when they recruit someone for it.

      As for being a role model, this goes without saying to everyone in the organization, not just Board Members, I’m a big promoter of professionalism, whether in volunteer work or jobs, thus doing your best at what you do and living up to the standards is not an option but rather goes without saying. Thus it is everyone’s responsibility of being a role model.

      I hope that clarifies things and thanks for sharing 😉



  6. Hi Afif. I am elected as a board of directors in a newly initiated NGO in Pakistan. Besides that i am working fulltime in a private company as well and i am a legal citizen of Pakistan.

    Legally what i should know before confirming myself as a board member ?

    Is it legal and allright if i do fulltime job besides that ? as my NGO involvement is purely volunteer.

    Is there any kind of clearance or NOC i should obtain from my employer, do state require such document ?

    Will there be any taxation changes implemented on me as Board member ?

    Thanks in Advance.

    • Hello Saroj,

      Yes indeed an individual can be involved in multiple NGOs. As a matter of fact I am on the Board of 4 NGOs (local and international), a member of few others and an Advisor to couple of others. So yes it is definitely an option.

      Good luck!


  7. Hi Afif,

    I am interested in participating in boards of international NGo’s. I would prefer English speaking jurisdictions. I don’t necessarily have any NGO experience but have a lot of regulatory experience. I reside in Southern Africa. Do you have any comments or any pointers for me? Awaiting your reply

    • Hello Nonku,

      Concerning Opportunities in INGOs, please do check the NGOs of interest as they all have websites and announce their job vacancies accordingly.

      Non are on my mind at the minute, yet if I catch something along the way I’ll let you know.


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