HEIDI G. MALIN: Ignorance is not always bliss
Many of us who live and work in Indiana County generously volunteer our time to nonprofit organizations, often as board members.
Serving as a board member for a nonprofit or service club is not only an honor and a privilege, but it also comes with a great deal of responsibility.
Ignorantia juris non excusat (Latin for "ignorance of the law does not excuse") is a legal principle holding that a person who is unaware of a law may not escape liability for violating that law merely because he or she was unaware of its content.
Fortunately, members of an Indiana County athletic boosters club recently escaped liability, claiming that they were "not aware" that the sweepstakes tickets they were selling as a fundraiser were considered illegal. Unfortunately, the fundraising company that sold the boosters the tickets now faces a misdemeanor gambling charge.
All nonprofit organizations in our county have an opportunity to learn from the boosters' mistake. It is important that members understand that the board they sit on is the legal entity responsible for the governance of that nonprofit organization.
Whether the organization functions with an all-volunteer corps or a staff of one or 100, the board of directors can delegate work, but not the final authority or responsibility, which legally remains with the board.
Under well-established principles of nonprofit corporation law, a board member must meet certain standards of conduct and attention in carrying out his or her responsibilities to the organization.
These standards are usually described as the duty of care, the duty of loyalty and the duty of obedience. The duty of care describes the level of competence that is expected of a board member, and is commonly expressed as the duty of "care that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise in a like position and under similar circumstances." The duty of loyalty is a standard of faithfulness; a board member must give undivided allegiance when making decisions affecting the organization. And finally, the duty of obedience requires board members to be faithful to the organization's mission.
Heading into the new year, make it your board's goal to understand it's duties of care, loyalty and obedience. The Pennsylvania Department of State's Bureau of Charitable Organizations is a great place to start by reviewing the website at www.dos.state.pa.us/por tal/server.pt/community/ charities/12444.
Heidi G. Malin
Keystone Fundraising Solutions