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By Robert B. Acton, Principal & Founder at Cause Strategy Partners, LLC

What makes a great nonprofit board member?

We spend a lot of time mulling over this question at Cause Strategy Partners – a consulting social enterprise that recruits, places, trains, and supports board members from top companies for the Boards of Directors of nonprofits in NYC, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area.  Our nonprofit partners look to us to identify committed, passionate, talented professionals who will demonstrate in their board service the same high performance they bring to their day job.  

Because this question is central to the success of our work, I regularly reflect on the many years of my own board involvements.  As a nonprofit chief executive, what board member characteristics proved to be most important in performing governance work and ensuring that we accomplish mission?  As a board member, which of my board colleagues demonstrate a standard of full engagement?  What do they do that sets them apart as high-impact board leaders?

“What board member characteristics proved to be most important?”

Great board service drives mission impact.  There is a direct correlation between how a board member engages week in and week out and his or her overall contribution to mission achievement.  Because of this, BoardLead – our signature program that has placed more than 120 high-performing professionals from top companies on to the boards of 56 nonprofit organizations – culminates with a four-part governance learning series by defining 5 Archetypes of Great Board Members.  We encourage our newly minted BoardLeaders to find the archetype that uniquely fits them and commit to model those behaviors in their service.  

 

The Pensive Sage:  Reflective.  Thoughtful.  Respected.

In board meetings, Dan Wilkening – a senior executive at a major financial institution in Chicago – would sit quietly for the lion’s share of the meeting.  He would listen carefully, take notes and nod occasionally, but rarely speak.  Yet when we were at the crossroads of a contentious discussion on an important strategic issue, Dan would lean forward in his chair, put his elbows on the table, lift an index finger, and wait to be invited by the Chair to jump into the conversation.  When he did, we listened.  Experienced, committed and wise, upon sharing his perspective, invariably the conversation would begin to move in the direction of Dan’s contribution.

The Pensive Sage actively listens more than he speaks.  He looks for ways to think about issues differently.  He asks good questions to ensure thoughtful debate.  And when he makes a point, it counts.  

 

The Trusted Advisor:  Available.  Honest.  Reliable.  

You know the saying:  leadership is lonely.  It’s true.  It really is.

The Trusted Advisor, usually an accomplished leader in her own right, understands this and forms a special relationship with the chief executive.  She invests significant time with the CEO outside the boardroom, building trust.  She serves as a sounding board, providing a safe space for the CEO to express frustrations, share concerns, or test ideas.  She provides encouragement, of course, but also artfully provides private and candid feedback when the chief executive has missed the mark.  

The Trusted Advisor “invests significant time with the CEO outside the boardroom, building trust.”

 

The Opportunity Seeker:  Enterprising.  Creative.  Solutions-Oriented.

After listening to the Executive Director’s report at a board meeting and learning that staff morale was particularly low, board member Adam Stanley spoke up.  Looking around the room at his colleagues, he said, “There is something we can do to help.”  Adam spent the next month organizing board members to hold a Staff Appreciation Day for the dedicated staff team.  He gathered gifts from each board member (tickets to sporting events and concerts, airline miles, art work), organized a celebratory party, and asked board members to personally prepare words of praise for each staff member.  On the day of the event, a chartered bus picked the staff up for a tour of the city while the board transitioned the drab office space into a party setting.  When the bus returned, staff members entered the office to a New Orleans style band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” as board members stood on both sides of a rolled out red carpet, cheering and applauding the team.  Thanks to one board member, a dispirited staff had the opportunity to feel valued in a tangible way by their Board of Directors.  

The Opportunity Seeker looks for problems to solve, and acts.  He is eager to apply his time, talent and treasure to advance the organization.  He lifts burdens off of the Chief Executive and makes them his own.  The Opportunity Seeker often contributes more outside the boardroom than in it.

 

The Technical Expert:  Skilled.  Willing.  Accessible.

Lisa Dietlin is an expert in fundraising who years earlier launched her own consultancy, The Institute of Transformational Philanthropy.  As a board member, she delivered her expertise to the nonprofit she served, chairing the Development Committee, helping shape fundraising strategy, and serving as a critical thought partner to the Executive Director.  Lisa delivered tens of thousands of dollars in expertise from her seat on the board, all pro bono.  She knew her sweet spot and stepped in as a board leader to drive impact.

Nonprofit Chief Executives are asked to be all things to all people.  Want evidence?  Visit www.idealist.org and look at an Executive Director job posting.  The list of desired competencies is extensive: shape strategy, supervise staff, oversee and evaluate programs and services, raise funds, guide the work of the board, advocate with governmental leaders, etc.  The list goes on and on.

The Technical Expert “acts as an issue spotter, quality assurance provider and sounding board on areas within her expertise.”

Board members generally bring deep expertise in one or more professional skill sets that they can contribute to the organization in meaningful ways.  The Technical Expert leverages her professional skills to bring about results.  She acts as an issue spotter, quality assurance provider and sounding board on areas within her expertise.  She takes a leadership role on topics in her wheelhouse.  She envisions pro bono engagements, helps develop a scope of work, and taps her professional network to source the project.  Always maintaining appropriate divisions in board-staff responsibilities, The Technical Expert helps the organization understand and accomplish gains in her area of core competency whether that is strategy, HR, marketing, legal, real estate, technology or any other professional capability.

 

The Pace Setter:  Fully-Engaged.  Driven.  Leader.

Political leaders use the phrase “A rising tide lifts all boats” to describe how a growing economy will benefit all participants in that economy.  The aphorism is also helpful to understand the effect of fully engaged board members serving a nonprofit board.  I’ve seen it over and over again:  a couple new high-performing board members take their commitment to drive impact from a governance seat seriously and, before long, other board members are responding to the upward pressure to be more meaningful contributors.  Why?  Sometimes it’s because leaders don’t like to be outpaced.  Sometimes it’s out of respect for the individual’s impressive level of involvement.  Maybe it’s because effective board leadership just needed to be modeled.  Occasionally it’s good old-fashioned guilt:  “If he’s doing that much, I’m embarrassed to do so little.”

The Pace Setter – perhaps the most desirable of the five archetypes – raises the performance of other board members through excellent board service.  He shapes the culture of the board by modeling a high standard of contribution.  The Pace Setter makes it uncomfortable to be disengaged and, in doing so, positively influences the overall contribution of his colleagues around the boardroom.  

 


Which Board Member Are You?

Every nonprofit board member should be fully-engaged.  Effective board service is marked by what we at Cause Strategy Partners describe as The BoardLeader Way:

  • A perfect or near perfect meeting attendance record
  • Robust participation in board meetings
  • Service on at least one board committee
  • A personally meaningful and sacrificial annual contribution
  • Active participation in all fundraising efforts
  • Leveraging your skills and network to drive impact
  • Completion of each elected term

Fully engaged board service like this should be the norm, not the exception.  Beyond that, each board member should find his or her path.  Uncover ways to uniquely contribute as a member of the organization’s governing body.

Reflection:  Consider a few questions as you reflect on your board service

  • Which of the 5 Archetypes of Great Board Members fits you best?
  • How do you currently model these behaviors in and outside the boardroom?  
  • Jot down three specific ways you can drive impact by doubling down on your approach to great board service.

 

Robert Acton
Rob Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, a purpose-driven social enterprise that believes in harnessing the power of business for social good. We are proud to be a Certified B Corporation. BoardLead is our signature board recruitment, placement, training and support program. In 2016, Cause Strategy Partners was named an inaugural honoree of the Best for NYC Award for demonstrated outstanding commitment to the community where we live and work. Learn more by visiting www.causestrategypartners.com.