Thoughts On Board Member Duties

May 03, 2024 by Andy R. Terrel

Last weekend I was working at the concession stand. I’m a board member of the local recreation baseball league and the assigned team to work the stand didn’t show up. For those new to the economics of kid sports, the concession stand is where flexible spending comes from and if it isn’t open, then the league can only afford the bare bones, e.g. umpires, grounds maintenance, and uniforms. The concession stand is where we make money to fix things like bathrooms and offer scholarships to families that even the bare bones price is hard.

While working the stand, with one volunteer and my son who played in the league for 6 years, I had two complaints about the women’s restroom. I called for help over the board communication channel, but everyone else was busy. At this point I had to make a decision. Do we stop serving concessions and take care of the bathroom? Do I leave my son who is capable but maybe not world knowledgeable enough to handle problems that come up? Do I ignore the bathroom and just keep working, after all bathrooms are supposed to be nasty at ballparks?

Then I remember the issues the league had last year being sued because of a sink failure. One of our little bundles of joy decided to jump up and down on the sink until it broke off. The ceramic crashed and broke, cutting the boy and sending him to the urgent care facility. For months after that the board was hounded with a lawsuit from the parents, which was eventually dismissed. The point is that operating a bathroom for a public event has certain duties and if you have two complaints about unsanitary conditions, you better check it out.

At this point, I did the thing that was one of the hardest things I’ve done at a baseball field, and I’ve kicked out drunks, confronted vagrants, and many of the unfortunate duties of a baseball director who is trying to keep a nice place for kids to play baseball. As I approached the line of ladies in their baseball mom shirts hopping up and down wanting to get back to the action, I could smell the bathroom. A quick peek in between occupants and the worst was true, a urine soaked floor with tons of trash everywhere. I politely told the ladies that I deemed the bathroom unsafe, closed the bathroom, and pointed to the portapotty on the other side of the ballpark. Thank goodness stares don’t actually kill.

Rushing back to the concession stand my plan was to clean it when we get relief from the next set of volunteers. Over a dozen women came and asked when the restroom would be opened. I heard people say silly things about the league not using its money wisely. I didn’t check but I expect someone posted mean things on social media, as the song goes “if good news sold checkin your phone would never get old”. The rumor mill doesn’t take a back seat, it fires up and starts spreading falsehoods as quickly as it can.

I did stop to explain to one group about the liabilities of the situation. We had complaints about an unsafe bathroom, and we are liable if someone gets sick. We sell food and if a health inspector shows up, we risk being shut down, and we risk losing the budget for non-critical repairs. Finally, once we had the bathroom cleaned and it no longer smelled, it had a wet floor, so we would be liable if a person fell and broke their hip. While I wanted to make sure our fans had a nice restroom, we were not liable if they had an emergency in their pants. The death stares did not go away.

What is your duty as a board member

I often get asked, what is the duty of the board. Having been a board member for a decade at NumFOCUS and now for several years at the baseball league, I can tell you simply, “Accomplish the mission”. The decisions that are made will be based on the best information you have at the time balancing the risks and rewards of those decisions. Furthermore, expect no one to understand or care about the person making those decisions. The number of people who complained about the restroom didn’t stop and thank me, a volunteer who is taking his free time to ensure their players had a ball field.

Ultimately, the board has to rise above the complaints and help the team come together to solve the next challenge. Expect to be called “incompetent”, “opportunistic”, and even “mediocre”. Nobody will take the time to understand the economics of your organization. Expect that when you serve people around the world, cultural differences and your governing policies will collide. Sometimes having a meeting will be considered hostile, sometimes not having a meeting will be considered hostile. Stepping into those shoes doesn’t come with a plan and certainly not a list of things that are “the right things to do”. Expect to lose nights of sleep, wake up to the fear that you are the problem and not the solution. Do not expect anyone to understand the job and thank you for doing it. It’s a hard job and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

If you as a board member don’t take the time to learn about the entire system you are helping manage, you will have a very hard time changing that institution. Having first hand seen board members not come to board meetings and they lay out complaints of having no effect. I have seen board members work very hard and still not build enough consensus from stakeholders. Some of these board members burned out because their own initiatives did not get accepted. I have seen board members try to drive from the back seat and numerous board members get very upset. Each board is different and that board has to learn to work together to solve problems.

But I posit you have one duty above all as a board member, and after you have been in a position of extreme pressure you will understand, you have the duty to support your fellow board members. I’ve seen this from the best leaders who reach out when you see a fellow member struggle. I remember a kind phone call from a more experienced COO once who saw how the CEO and I were not communicating with one another effectively. The result was a better proposal that still included my points and moved the organization in a better direction.