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 you choosing to put on your Board?”
Sadly, haphazard Board recruitment is the rule rather than the exception. Selection is not totally random, but Boards tend not to think about who would be a good Director 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 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 Board Members have at least one, if not several, of the following qualities. When thinking about building a Great Board, consider who you choose.
Choose Strategic Thinkers
Great 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 tomorrows 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 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.
Ambassadors aren’t born, they’re groomed. It is not enough to recruit well connected people and hope they’ll carry the message to their Rotary Club, Business Association or even their golfing buddies. Nonprofits must help their 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.
We have left the age of the Knowledge Worker and entered the age of the Networker. It is not enough for Board members to know a lot about their mission, outcomes or field. Great Board members know enough about their 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.
Great Board members know that pursuing the mission means accepting responsibility for results at all levels. This means helping the entire organization achieve results even when it is not a direct responsibility. 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 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 in Utah recruits fiscal talent not on professional knowledge alone, but also on the ability to teach financial literacy to lay members of the Board. It's in the job description for Chair of the Finance Committee.
Commitment is about quality, not quantity. A passion for the mission is essential in order to be a Great Board member. The nonprofit becomes a major priority in their life, and it shows by the investment of time, energy, ideas. You 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 passion for the mission and enthusiasm for the organization they then are added to the pool of potential new Board members.
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 an effective and sustainable nonprofit.
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