The Oak Life Journal
Jul | Aug 2021
The Orphanage Founder's Guide to:
The Board of Directors (Part One)
By Cameron Talbot
A great board of directors will empower and legitimize an orphanage. Similarly, a poorly formed or dysfunctional board can destroy an orphanage. But how do we ensure the former? What exactly should a board do/not do? Who should/should not serve on the board?
Whether you are an orphanage founder who formed the board years ago, a director who inherited a preexisting board, or you are just beginning the process to select your members, this guide is for you!*
*NOTE: Directors are not always the only person selecting board members, and the board at large makes the final decision. But in our experience, directors are often tasked with the job of finding new members.
Why a board is important
First things first. Do we really need a board, or is it just a bureaucratic requirement to fill?
I pose this important question because, when I was first forming the Oak Life board, I didn’t know the answer! To me, it felt like an extra, cumbersome step. I knew it would mean involving people who do not think like me, and perhaps could not see the vision of Oak Life like I could. And if I’m completely honest, as the founder of the organization, I initially didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of sharing power with people who might disagree with me.
Can anyone else relate?
The answer is a loud, emphatic YES!
What a good board can really do
Why? Because a well-built Board of Directors does 7 critical things—
Takes responsibility for large decisions
Offers unique perspectives and professional council on problems and strategies
Maintains the sacredness of the mission statement
Requires everyone involved to share power
Forms a wall of organizational accountability and boundaries
Shows the world that you are trustworthy and legitimate
Helps make important connections with the outside community
As an orphanage director, you want, not just need, a board of directors who can do these things for you. They are your additional eyes, ears and hands. They should advocate for your cause, think deeply to solve issues that you are facing, and remind you to stay focused on what’s important. We need that empowerment!
What Donors See
We say that a good board of directors legitimizes an orphanage. This is because most orphanages operate on the finances of generous donors, and smart donors will often look at the board of directors when deciding to give or not.
A well-formed board, doing all 7 of the above responsibilities effectively, shows your potential donors that the orphanage’s foundation is solid. The risks of mismanagement, financial failure, theft and other abuses are minimized. And if those unfortunate things do take place, the board is there to take responsibility and/or help fix the issue.
Unfortunately, building a board of directors that can do all 7 of those responsibilities can be difficult! You couldn’t just pick a random group of people and expect them to fulfill the job. Understand that, if the wrong people are on the board, they can damage the children’s home. And donors who see you have not chosen wisely are well within their rights to not hand over those precious financial resources.
That leads us to our next question—
How to choose the members?
So where are these incredible board members? Who do we choose to execute this crucial role in our orphanage?
Our natural tendency is to simply bring on the people we know best, who love us, or love our vision. But these are not often the most qualified candidates. So, you might have to step outside of your comfort zone and get to know some new people in order to find that perfect match for the needs of your children’s home.
Your board of directors must be both qualified and independent.
A potential board member should fill at least 2 or more of these qualifications:
Has personal experience working in orphan care
Is originally from the community where your home is located
Has specific, professional experience or wisdom that can be used/drawn upon to support the orphanage (e.g. fundraising, administration, accounting, child psychology, etc.)
Is willing to advocate for/connect the orphanage to their personal circle of society
Each of your board members should bring something unique to the table. They should be a council of sages, each providing wisdom on a different pillar of your orphanage. So, like finding an employee who is perfect for the job they will fill, we must apply the same critical thinking to our board members.
For example, is your orphanage in need of funds? Consider finding a board member who once worked in grant writing. At the least, they can offer counsel. Perhaps they still have contacts with key people with whom you can connect. Maybe they can even put their experience into practice and work a few hours per week writing grants for you.
Secondly, you must maintain an independent board.
An independent board is one in which the majority of its members are:
Not related to you by blood or marriage
Not related to each other by blood or marriage
Do not hold paid positions at the orphanage
Not related by blood or marriage to someone holding a paid position
What’s wrong with relatives or staff members being on the board? Well, nothing! You can certainly invite some of them to be on your board.
The issue arises when a majority of your board consists of people who are not independent. These are people who, by definition, are “dependent.” That is to say, they have some personal stake in the decisions that are made. They are too closely connected.
And when those are the people making the big decisions, history tells us (and our donors), that the mission of the orphanage is in jeopardy of being set aside for personal gain. Dependent board members are also much more susceptible to manipulation and coercion. Errors in judgment from dependent board members might be unintentional, but it is an important temptation/danger to stay away from.
NOTE: Every country’s laws regarding board independence are different. In much of Asia Pacific, Latin America and Africa, standards require one-third or less of the board to be independent. If your country is more relaxed about board standards, BUT you wish to raise financial support from citizens of countries where the laws are more strict, understand that those donors will most likely expect your board to meet the above requirements. As the orphanage leadership, it is you and your board’s responsibility to create a foundation that donors can feel confident standing on.
The truth is, putting your trust in people to handle such important tasks is intimidating. Maybe they don’t think like you. Maybe they haven’t invested as much blood and sweat as you. But in the end, with a little humility and wisdom, we remember that the mission is what’s supremely important. A healthy board will empower you and your children’s home to be both safe and successful. In a word, the board of directors helps to produce excellence.
In Part 2, we will discuss:
Practical expectations for board members
How an orphanage board should operate
How to run a successful board meeting