By Phillip Henderson | Vice Chair, BoardSource Board of Directors | President, Surdna Foundation

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When I took the job as president of the Surdna Foundation in 2007, I was not surprised to be showered with flattery and pursued by people who hoped I might just write a check to support their work. What I hadn’t fully anticipated were the many requests to serve on nonprofit boards.

Early in my career, I have to admit, I was a bit of skeptic about boards, thinking they were really just window dressing. Wasn’t a board member’s job simply lending his or her name to the organization’s letterhead, attending quarterly meetings, and offering the occasional nugget of wisdom?  In other words:  Don’t board members just show up and smile? It would be difficult to convince a skeptic otherwise, for we’ve all heard the not-so-apocryphal-sounding stories of big corporate boards that were asleep at the wheel while their CEOs did nefarious deeds.

Some of my doubt about board service stemmed from the utter failure of boards at companies like Enron and WorldCom. While these catastrophes did lead to legislation aimed at creating greater accountability at both corporate and nonprofit boards, the primary effect of that law, known as Sarbanes-Oxley, seems to have been an increase in paperwork and formal checklists, not to mention fees paid to lawyers and accountants.  It’s difficult to say how effective it has been. Board members do, however, pay far more attention to the tax returns and the work of audit committees. More

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