The qualities and characteristics of great board members are similar, though not identical, across the nonprofit sector—regardless of organization size, staffing, or mission. While it’s cathartic and even fun to complain about the less-desirable actions and behaviors of some board members, it’s far more useful to emulate the best qualities of high-performing Board members and officers. In my experience, GREAT board members have some things in common. They:
Know WHY they are involved with their organization. They have a connection to the work of the nonprofit that is real, reinforced often, and actively reflected upon. They understand the importance of the work the organization does, they know the role of the organization in the community, and they are committed to assisting it to the best of their abilities.
Fully understand their personal legal duties to the organization. Further, they understand their role in governance and are aware of the organization’s policies and procedures. This includes having a sophisticated understanding of the areas where their input/guidance is NOT needed and/or helpful for the organization.
Understand the nonprofit’s mission, vision, and work fluently, and can speak about it to others (evangelizing is a crucial role of board members).
Realize that the most important duty of board members is fundraising, for the majority of nonprofit organizations. They commit to supporting the organization via their board member give/get, fundraising events, and other fundraising efforts.
Commit to identifying productive ways their support is helpful, useful, and productive for the organization, recognizing that power dynamics may play a role in whether or not an Executive Director/CEO may feel comfortable accepting offers of “help” that may not in fact be helpful.
Master the skill of serving as a resource or support by serving others within the organization; rather than directing, inflicting, or imposing their skills or methods upon the organization or it’s staff.
Recognize that their professional expertise does not automatically render them an authority in nonprofit governance or management. There is a learning curve, and specific, highly specialized skills are required to successfully manage a nonprofit organization.
Communicate effectively with fellow board members and nonprofit staff. Board members who listen as much as they talk demonstrate willingness to gather information and learn, as well as guide and govern.
Assist the organization in developing strategy, making connections, fundraising, and more when asked. Board Members should be involved at the strategic level, helping to ask salient questions and guide the organizations they serve to answers that address long-term, complex, and strategic positioning questions.
Understand that board service is a job, that their roles have definition and specific expectations (which organizations that do a good job of orienting their board members succeed in communicating effectively), and that their contributions should be in alignment with these expectations.