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Not Just a Job: What Makes a Good Board Member?

From scheduling events to approving consent agendas to completing board self-assessment surveys, technology makes it increasingly easier for board members to do their jobs. While access to timely information absolutely helps, it’s not everything. The key to ensuring optimal job performance by nonprofit board members is recognizing that board service is, in fact, a job.

Granted, “nonprofit board member” is typically an unpaid position, but a defined job nonetheless. Complete with responsibilities and integral in the process of governance work, the job of a board member is to execute the duties and tasks that correspond with that leadership position. Working together as boards of directors, board members are the fiduciaries who steer organizations toward a sustainable future, according to the National Council of Nonprofits. To that end, they adopt sound, ethical, and legal governance and financial management policies, as well as make sure nonprofits have adequate resources to advance their missions.

At their best, board members collaborate in leading organizations along the right strategic paths toward mission achievement. Unfortunately, there’s a flip side. As noted by Stanford Business, “Weak board governance… keeps nonprofits from reaching their full potential and ultimately may even cause a nonprofit to struggle and die.”

Given the critical importance of the job, it is striking when boards don’t hold board members accountable to reasonable job standards. Similarly, it is disappointing when board members don’t fully embrace the scope of their responsibilities. To help board members perform their unpaid, often unglamorous, yet absolutely essential jobs better, we offer some tips:

Clarify responsibilities

Would you ever take – or offer – a job without a job description? Chances are you’d also expect to understand your employer’s long-term goals and priorities in order to understand how/where you fit. Boards, too, must define responsibilities and expectations in advance of electing board members to ensure they know and accept their obligations. Furthermore, board members should review the organization’s strategic plan as context for their individual and collective performance standards.

Be present

Whether it’s a board meeting, a committee conference call, a staff or volunteer appreciation event, or even a site visit, the board member’s job is to attend. Any worker would be fired for failing repeatedly to show up at a job and board members should be no exception. If they can’t attend or devote sufficient time to the job, perhaps it’s the wrong job for them at that time. Boards need to develop and enforce appropriate attendance policies, recognizing that time requirements might fluctuate throughout the year and conflict with any board member’s availability in certain periods.

Ask questions

No employer expects you to know how to do your job perfectly from day one and forevermore, so why would boards expect anything different from board members? Part of every board members job is to question why things happen certain ways, how things will change or improve, when opportunities and threats will emerge, and what to do about them. Board members must battle the status quo, which often provides comfort in terms of energy and time spent, in favor of organizational evolution and sustainability.


No one works in a vacuum and board members certainly can’t execute their job functions in isolation. Board members must learn to contribute their individual expertise not only independently, but as part of a whole. That means knowing when to play devil’s advocate and provoke discussions as well as when to fall in line after raising concerns. Board members are essential to the leadership structure of any nonprofit organization, but they must work in partnership with one another as well as with staff leadership.

Evaluate performance

How does one recognize a job well done? Performance appraisal is an integral part of any job, including serving as board member. All board members should be held to and evaluated against defined standards that aim to ensure optimal board performance. Too many boards relax their performance standards due to board member longevity or passion or even wealth, yet all board members can benefit from a measured assessment of their efforts.

Professional development

Continuous improvement helps keep us sharp and engaged in our work, so it makes sense to include learning in volunteer jobs, as well. For a board member who signs on to lead the strategic planning process, a book or workshop on nonprofit planning can be invaluable. Or perhaps a board member wants to learn more about trends in the nonprofit’s industry in order to best apply his/her professional expertise.

As the above tips illustrate, serving on a nonprofit board is an active – not static – job. While job expectations might vary from organization to organization, certain board member characteristics seem to lend themselves well to the job. According to Network for Good, they include:

  • Accountability – great board members hold themselves and the organization accountable for advancing the mission.
  • Passion for mission – their passion is sincere and contagious, helping to promote others’ enthusiasm about the mission.
  • Donor access and modeling – great board members demonstrate a financial commitment to the organization and provide access to others who can do the same.
  • Big picture view – they view the mission through a strategic, not operational, lens.
  • Inquisitive nature – great board members aren’t afraid to ask hard or frequent questions in striving toward progress.

Beyond these shared traits, there are some universal functions that all board members can perform to enhance their nonprofits. According to the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, the following must be performed “bravely, rigorously, and consistently” as part of every board member’s job:

  • Ensure the mission is focused and well understood.
  • Ask stupid questions, until you figure out the smart ones.
  • Make field visits.
  • Insist on impact evaluations.
  • Develop a (leadership) succession plan.
  • Recruit the board members that the organization needs.

As Stanford Business acknowledges, board members get invited to serve because they bring something to the table. They bring expertise, experience, talent, and passion to their work as board members. Their efforts will “lay the foundation for the kinds of innovation and scaling up that can solve the world’s problems. But innovation and growth come after the fundamentals of good governance.” Good governance is, of course, executed by good board members. As a board member, it is imperative that you treat your volunteer leadership job as professionally as you would another job.

Sonia J. Stamm

Sonia J. Stamm is Governance Consultant at BoardEffect. Since almost our inception, she has shared a best practice perspective on governance with our team and clients, partnering to guide boards toward optimal implementation of our software. As founder and principal of a nonprofit leadership consulting firm, Sonia supports the evolution of mission-based organizations through her work in board development, leadership transition and succession, and organizational effectiveness. A seasoned facilitator, trainer, and consultant, she enjoys guiding boards and organizations through critical junctures in their development.