In the first installment of our Voices of Impact series, Suzanne Battit interviews Prabha Fernandes, Ph.D, Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership of North America board member. Prabha discusses her passion for nonprofit boards and shares advice for prospective board members.
Suzanne Battit: I’d love to begin our conversation asking you what you feel are the most important responsibilities and contributions of an effective board member.
Prabha Fernandes: So, the most important responsibility for any board member is to clearly understand the organization’s goals coupled with the larger trends in the sector. Along those lines, it is also very important to see who else is working in that sector because this helps the board member guide the company, to provide support for the company, and to challenge the direction of the company. If you don’t know the details of what the organization is doing, then you cannot really provide direction. This means diving into the financials, feeding the cashflow, and seeing to it that each program is properly funded, all to ensure that milestones are reached.
Only by understanding the organization’s goals, seeing the whole picture of an organization and the space they are in, can a board member really be helpful.
How do you think about the board and the organization when you are considering becoming a board member?
I do get a lot of calls to join boards, especially nowadays when there are few people who have the time and perhaps experience to do so. My main criteria when looking at boards is that I want to be able to make a difference. So, I look at the organization and their mission program through that lens.
Then I ask if I—and my experience and knowledge—can make a difference at that organization. I don’t just want to be a figurehead. I want to be able to help that nonprofit reach its goals.
The other thing I do is I try to learn about the board chairperson, the CEO, and other board members. I want to see that they all share a common purpose and passion for the work. There’s always somebody who might want to be more important, but there’s still friendly camaraderie, and that’s very important because then you’re able to speak out and ask the tough questions. You have to check that all out right in the beginning.
Do you anticipate the role of nonprofit boards will evolve in the next few years in any significant ways?
The boards of all companies now are changing to be inclusive. It’s required by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). It’s not a total requirement right now in the U.S., but it is a requirement in Europe and some other countries. So, we are getting there. I’m seeing more women on organization’s boards. I used to be the only one. Not anymore.
Additionally, as a result of the pandemic, a lot of meetings are on Zoom. I find, even with this shift, it is still very important to have at least one annual meeting together in person. I think it’s important to have the personal connection with other board members and the organization. Of course, though, this transition to digital has opened doors to more people to become board members—and also reduced the amount of physical paper you have the sign!
For you, Prabha, what has been your most rewarding aspect of sitting on the nonprofit boards on which you serve?
I am of the mind that when you’re young, you’re learning how to make money. In the middle part of your life, you’re making the money. In the latter part of your life, you’ve got to give back to people. So, I like being on the nonprofit boards because you’re with like-minded people, passionate people who want to help others, and together you are making change and taking action.
By everybody acting, only then we can execute a change. And that’s what I like about nonprofit boards. We’re actually spending our time, our money, our experience, our efforts in trying to make that change. It may not work, but at least you’re making that effort. And it’s a whole bunch of people who are doing that. I so enjoy meeting all these different people because I learn from all of them too. I’m not too old to learn.
If you were to give one piece of advice to either prospective or new nonprofit board members, what would you share with them?
Going back to the first question, I would say they should learn about the organization–their goals, their team, their competitors. Meet the team in person. You want to know if the management shares that passion for the work. Are they driven to get the job done or is it just a job? And that’s very, very important. The passion must be shared.
The other thing is that I find nonprofits are on a different timeframe. They are typically slower and more bureaucratic than for-profit organizations. That is something to consider personally, if you can accept the bureaucracy. It requires a lot of patience.
Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you’d like to share that you think would be helpful to share around nonprofit board experience?
One thing I would say is that there will be changes, and as such objectives and milestones change. So, as a board member, you need to be looking toward the future, and then be nimble in the moment to accommodate.
Sometimes, in this work, you have to anticipate the worst and enjoy the best when it happens.