As a nonprofit board, they ticked all the right boxes. Gender diverse. Ethnically multi-cultural. There were several prominent business owners. A Power Player. A lawyer. An accountant. Even someone who had used the agency’s services to rise out of poverty – a “consumer”.
According to every standard recruitment matrix, this outfit had as well rounded a board of directors as one could hope. A model board we might say. Yet I was sent there in the summer of 2007 because this nonprofit was in chaos and on the verge of collapse.
This is not an uncommon occurrence. How often do we encounter an organization with all the right board members yet seemingly incapable of getting anything done. It happens…..A LOT.
High performing board members just don’t happen. Truly transformative leaders just don’t fall from the sky. Great board members are identified, recruited and oriented. In this piece, let’s discuss a basic question, “Who are we choosing to put on our nonprofit board?”
Sadly, haphazard board recruitment is the rule rather than the exception. Selection is not totally random, but we tend not to think about who would be a good board member until an opening appears, with the result that slots are filled by the best candidate willing and available at that time.
Part of the failure to recruit solid members starts by failure to identify what type of person belongs on the board. Many nonprofit boards do have a recruitment matrix to think through what type of technical skills (accounting, law, facility, etc). Much of this thinking is then mirrored in the basic job description.
However, we often fail to target soft skills. While everyone brings different strengths to the table, great nonprofit board members have at least one, if not several, of the following qualities. When thinking about building a great board, consider carefully who we choose.
#1 – We Want Strategic Thinkers
Great nonprofit board members identify new opportunities or unsolved problems and can ignite the discussion about these issues. They understand what matters, both externally and internally. They bring clarity to complex issues by presenting the issue so other board members can grasp the issue and contribute to the solution. Strategic thinkers have a mental model that connects today’s action with tomorrow’s outcome, the organization’s role within it, and an understanding of the competencies it requires.
Equally critical is that Strategic Thinkers do not wait for permission raise such issues. They take initiative to organize people and time to start the discussion and drive the agenda.
Early last decade a small nonprofit afterschool program in Pittsburgh positioned itself to secure numerous grants and contracts to provide tutoring services. They got ahead of the curve because of several board members, well versed in education policy, understood the opportunities of the federal No Child Left Behind. Within three years, the organization had tripled in size.
#2 – We Want Ambassadors
Ambassadors aren’t born, they’re groomed. It is not enough to recruit well-connected people and hope they’ll carry our message to their Rotary Club, Business Association or even their book club members. We must help our board members articulate the mission, the issues and the trends that affect the work. Being a good ambassador externally reverberates internally.
Junior Achievement of Western PA provides board members with monthly policy updates and talking points printed on business card formats. This gives board members simple things to share in their routine discussions during the month.
#3 – We Want Networkers
We have left the Age Of The Knowledge Worker and entered the Age Of The Networker. It is not enough for our board members to know a lot about our mission, outcomes or field. Great
nonprofit board members know enough about our own organization and the external environment to recognize opportunities. They then open doors or make critical introductions.
As Malcolm Gladwell noted in The Tipping Point, networkers are the go-to people, the must-haves at meetings. The effects are viral. The more they connect the nonprofit to the external environment, the greater money, time and talent will flow into the nonprofit.
#4 – We Want Coaches
Great board members know that pursuing the mission means accepting responsibility for results at all levels. This means helping our entire organization achieve results even when it is not a direct obligation. This may involve showing up at a special event that’s not required or pitching in with ideas and information on another committee’s project. It also entails helping to build the skills of fellow board members. This type of nonprofit board leadership is essential in a flat, decentralized organization.
Understanding the fiscal position of a nonprofit can be a challenge for board members not in the financial industry. Therefore, the board of one nonprofit food bank pursues fiscal talent not on professional knowledge alone, but also on the ability to teach financial literacy to lay members of the board.
#5 – We Want Commitment
Commitment is about quality, not quantity. A passion for the mission is essential to be a great board member. Enthusiasm translates into a singular focus nonprofit board members exhibit when doing each piece of work for our organization. Our nonprofit becomes a major priority in their life, and it shows by the investment of time, energy, ideas. They can’t fake commitment.
Many boards incorporate the strategy of engaging people first as volunteers in events or on adhoc committees. If in time they display a passion for the mission and enthusiasm for the organization they then are added to the pool of potential new board members.
Building a strong nonprofit board must be a priority for us. In discussions of outstanding nonprofits, we generally point to high performing management teams or a passionate Executive Director constructing the organization brick by brick. But when things go south and challenges appear, it’s the board of directors who ultimately come under fire. This happens in both the corporate and nonprofit world. Regardless of sector, the lesson is the same; there is nothing more fundamentally important than building a strong board of directors.
The qualities outlined here serve as signs of whether a person can be entrusted with major decisions and will contribute to advancing the mission. They show that the leader will take care of others and the organization
Great boards are crafted. It takes effort and attention to detail. Recruitment is an ongoing process as potential new leaders are identified, nurtured and oriented. But the investment of time and energy is critical to building a successful and sustainable nonprofit.
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NOTE: This is an updated version of an essay which first appeared in the July 2012 issue of the now defunct publication Voices Of America’s Future