Passion. It’s the favorite first ingredient in recipes for cooking up a great nonprofit board member. “Commitment to mission” or “passion for the cause” is included on almost every list of criteria for prospective board members. Amidst numerous other preferred qualifications, passion counts above all.
Except it doesn’t. Passion should not represent the pinnacle of board member qualifications as much as the basis. According to Chris Grundner, founder of the Kelly Heinz-Grundner Brain Tumor Foundation, passion belongs at the bottom of the nonprofit board’s hierarchy of needs from board members. In a poignant and insightful TED Talk, he describes passion as being essential, but not everything. He considers passion – along with showing up (for meetings), attending organizational events and making an annual financial contribution – to be the foundation on which solid governance can be built.
Unfortunately, many nonprofit boards seek those with a passion for their mission and stop there in assessing board member credentials. Even that quality, however, can be deceiving. Research from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business showed that basic assumptions and obvious duties of nonprofit directors are often missed. A survey of 924 nonprofit board members found that:
- 27% of board members don’t think their colleagues have a strong understanding of the organization’s mission and strategy.
- 65% don’t think their board is very experienced.
- 50% don’t think their colleagues (on the board) are very engaged.
Too many board members agree to serve on nonprofit boards without fully appreciating the role, responsibilities, ethical obligations and time commitment that will be required of them. Even some seasoned board members don’t fully grasp the nuances of the mission they serve or the nonprofit business model. While boards certainly should enhance their board recruitment and board member orientation processes to reflect organizational needs, board members also must deepen their understanding of – and preparation for – effective board service.
Nonprofit Board Member Criteria
Most nonprofit executives and board leaders can name the optimal criteria, talents and skills they seek in board members quite readily. Having heard many laments and wishes from nonprofit leaders over time, I recently surveyed a sampling of board members and executive staff to learn what makes the best board members (beyond passion, of course). While they all highlighted tenets of modern governance, it is no surprise that some answers were shaped by the unique perspective the individual respondents bring to the table.
The board chair of a regional advocacy organization stated her preferences simply:
Come to meetings prepared.
Bring a collaborative attitude and presence.
Take time to understand the role and to what you are committing.
Board members who attend meetings “just to hear what’s happening aren’t helping,” she elaborated. “They must come prepared to collectively shape what happens.” In other words, board members are expected to review (and understand) the materials an effective board distributes in advance, then work together to address governance matters. That means understanding what governance is and having the time, effort and interest in serving in a governance capacity.
The General Counsel of a renowned social services organization emphasized:
Know the role and commit to staying in your lane, without abdicating appropriate responsibilities.
Knowing the role means recognizing not only what a board member does, but also what one doesn’t do. This member of the executive management team watched board members defer to the CEO in making key decisions, then overstep into operations when the CEO’s leadership was challenged. By staying informed and engaged in board work and knowing their essential place in the organization, board members can help avoid, or at least mitigate, organizational crises.
The board member of an education organization suggested:
Engage in the board’s work – provide resources and expertise.
Ask questions and demonstrate your ability to think critically.
“Playing an active role in board work means more than participating in board meetings,” advised this seasoned nonprofit executive and new board member. “Board members must engage between meetings, as that’s when the real work happens.” He mentioned fundraising, in the broadest sense – sharing contacts, introducing the CEO to potential funders, joining the CEO in meeting prospective donors – as well as sharing knowledge and professional skills that can serve the organization.
Similarly, in a professional capacity, ask questions – just as you would in any job regarding a matter you didn’t understand or that no longer made sense. Whether it’s a matter of policy, process, impact or opportunity, ask how, why – or why not. Although a financial practice or nomination process might have been in place for decades, it could be compromising efficiency or effectiveness now. Habits form readily in organizations, and it’s up to board members to ensure they understand what’s happening, what it means and whether it aligns with current priorities.
The CEO of a national health-related organization added:
Be willing to learn (especially what it takes to be a good nonprofit board member).
Focus on strategy and governance, not operations.
Learning must be ongoing, even beyond the basics. Before you vote on the budget, ask for a lesson in reading the organization’s financial statements. If you’re chairing the strategic planning process, seek information not only on leading a board committee, but also on nonprofit planning models and processes. Board service provides a unique opportunity for continuous professional development in skills and functions, as well as the field of interest your mission serves.
Remember that most of what you’ve already learned likely supports management functions and operational thinking. After all, traditional education does not include governance instruction. Be mindful, then, about containing any instincts to step into the operational weeds.
The CFO of a large human services organization offered a plea:
Know the nonprofit business model.
Because his board members typically are high-level business professionals, their focus tends to be on operational efficiency and the bottom line. With all good intentions, they push for “increased program reach, reduced expenses and greater profit margins.” As he explained, “I remind them regularly that we’re not a for-profit entity – we’re glad to have revenue, but our mandate is to serve people, not save dollars.”
A seasoned interim executive director issued an urgent reminder:
Engage in effective decision making – do not avoid or defer.
Having stepped in to guide an organization through the succession of its founding executive, this interim leader found board members dodging a critical discussion that could alter the mission of the organization. For years, they had avoided determining whether their cause was direct service, advocacy or both. Board members instead relied upon the founder to steer the organization in whichever direction he chose at a given time.
Not surprisingly, boards that defer decisions to the chief executive or board chair are ill-prepared for their eventual succession, not to mention culpable for decisions they didn’t even make. And boards that avoid making critical decisions can thwart their organizations’ success.
Board members must understand the importance and process of decision making, then come prepared to engage in critical discussions accordingly.
The founder of a health-related nonprofit noted:
Acknowledge and support staff efforts – lend a hand, don’t just give orders.
Although operations are not their purview, board members still can play an important role in supporting operational success. “Show that you recognize our hard work. Offer positive feedback and encouragement when you have it and help whenever you can,” advised a devoted founder. “As staff, we try to show appreciation for your volunteer efforts, but know that our work often goes above and beyond the parameters of our jobs.”
To be the best nonprofit board member, follow your passion to identify the right mission to serve, then make sure you know your “job,” gain the skills to perform it, and invest yourself in doing so with intent and excellence.