Hot Topics & Recent Columns

Seven Member Characteristics of a Strong Board

 

Passion - Each board member must have an *expressed* commitment to the organization's cause.

Believing in the mission -- the cause -- of the organization must come first. There are many talented board members who occupy board positions and seldom, if ever, give of their time, talent, money, and perspective. Passion isn't a substitute for the other characteristics, but it's the necessary precondition for the effective and reliable exercise of the other characteristics.

Knowledge - Each board member must have a working knowledge of the organization, its customers, and the community.

Board members have a positive duty, an obligation, to know what's going on both in and around the organization they govern. This “inside-out” and “outside-in” knowledge combination enables boards to take advantage of opportunities, respond to adversity, and better position the organization for success.

Diversity of Expertise - The composition of the board must include financial, legal, service, and other skill sets necessary to make good decisions.

A board of directors should represent a broad cross-section of professional, programmatic, social, and community experience and expertise. A diverse group is better able to address the broad range of issues that routinely face a board, as well as to advise and direct the Executive Director/CEO on policy and governance issues.

NOTE: Many boards make the mistake of using board members to serve as consulting employees. This is not good practice, as it distracts board members from their governance role and potentially leaves members professionally liable for their actions. It may also inhibit the organization's ability to seek out and retain the best, most qualified expert consultation in a particular situation. The level of subject-matter expertise required to serve on a board is substantially different from that required to provide specialized professional services to an organization.

“Entrepreneur” Representation - A strong board includes people who see the “big picture,” understand how all the elements of a business work together, and have the ability to articulate the connections of each segment of the organization.

Board members who have started and operated their own businesses have a unique advantage in understanding the complexities and interrelationships between seemingly unrelated business issues. They tend to be focused on production, results, and specific accountability. They also understand that the organization is the means of satisfying the mission, not the mission itself. Their energy, as well as their occasional intolerance and impatience, are an important spark to help keep the organization vibrant and challenged.

Commitment - An expressed willingness by each board member to do the hard work of fund raising, friend-raising, and governance.

Board members are subject to a higher standard of performance than other volunteers in nonprofit organizations. They need to know, understand, and endorse the idea that board service is a legal and fiduciary duty to the organization and to the community. It is not a “when I have time for it” task.

For board members, commitment is the expression of the depth of their passion through action. With training and staff support, board members should expect to be called upon to do some of the "heavy lifting" to help the organization succeed and fulfill the mission they (the board) have set for it.

Time - An expressed willingness to take part in all levels of board service from committee meetings to full board meetings.

Respect for time is a shared responsibility of board members and staffs. The board member should expect to devote the time necessary to fulfill their responsibilities to the best of their abilities. Board service includes representing the organization in committee meetings, presentations to external audiences, donor meetings, etc. It should never be the "just an hour or two a month in a board meeting" some people try to claim.

Board members also have the right to expect their time to be highly valued and well-used by staff. Board members' time should be prioritized based on the high-level action expected from them. Don't waste time on pro forma meetings, agendas with no action items, meetings with no anticipated outcomes. Don't use board members to take up space and fill a room.

Connection - An expressed willingness to connect the organization to new friends and supporters. A willingness to be an ambassador for the organization.

Board members should serve based on their connections to the community as well as their connections to the organization its cause or mission. The board represents the organization to the community, and represents the community to the organization. The board should serve as a two-way communication vehicle, with board members being both “we” and “they.”

Board members with connections to the community make it possible for the organization to deliver its message and tell its story to new audiences with special credibility. Board members can act as the catalyst for new alliances, collaborations, and partnerships through introductions or simply through their knowledge of what's going on in other systems or circles of influence.

The more diverse a board is, the more connections -- and the more opportunities -- your organization is likely to participate in.