Shortly after writing The Nonprofit Board You’d Love to Join, it seemed important to look at this issue from the other direction. The following is a list of ten attractive characteristics of a board member from the perspective of a charity:
Ten Attractive Characteristics of a Nonprofit Board Member
- Deeply connected to the mission
- Committed to showing up and adding value in and out of the boardroom
- Aligned with the organization’s core values
- Ethical and able to meet their fiduciary duties of care and loyalty
- Team-oriented and collaborative with an openness to new ideas and directions
- Thoughtful, strategic, responsive, and prepared (all tied together as one characteristic!)
- Generous with respect to making a meaningful contribution to the organization, which typically would include a monetary donation but might principally be through additional services
- Representative of one or more communities that is underrepresented in the organization’s leadership
- Experienced and skilled in one or more areas of importance to the organization
- Enthusiastic about acting as an ambassador for the organization to their networks and to the broader community
Deeply connected to the mission
This is the most cited characteristic of a desired board member. But maybe it’s more of a proxy for some of the other desired characteristics that would hopefully accompany their passion for the mission. It makes sense that persons with such passion would more likely be committed to their service and generous in their contributions. In addition, they may be seen by others as sincere (and therefore more effective) ambassadors and fundraisers.
Committed to showing up and adding value in and out of the boardroom
Nonprofits need engaged board members. They attend and actively participate at every board meeting with rare exception. They join committees and act as sounding boards for the chair or the executive. They regularly inform the board and leadership team with news, trends, opportunities, and threats and support them in understanding how to use this information.
Aligned with the organization’s core values
Values-alignment is often taken for granted if a board member’s interests are mission-aligned. But values and mission are not the same thing. For example, a nonprofit’s mission may be to support children’s education, but one of its core values may be related to furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), which informs how the nonprofit furthers its mission and provides support. In some cases, values alignment may be considered an absolute requirement. But in other cases, nonprofits may seek persons with different priorities and perspectives so long as there is some alignment with certain core values (e.g., mutual respect), whether stated or unstated.
Ethical and able to meet their fiduciary duties of care and loyalty
This characteristic should be an absolute requirement. Board members owe fiduciary duties of care and loyalty to their organization by law. They must act in a manner that they believe to be in the best interests of the corporation and with such care, including reasonable inquiry, as an ordinarily prudent person in a like position would use under similar circumstances. The duty of care includes being informed and prepared, asking questions, and using their independent judgment. The duty of loyalty includes putting the organization’s best interests ahead of all other interests. Accordingly, if a board member has a conflict of interest in some proposed decision before the board, their vote on the matter may not count (e.g., if it would violate a state self-dealing prohibition) or they may ethically be obligated to abstain from such vote.
Team-oriented and collaborative with an openness to new ideas and directions
Perhaps the most important characteristic boards seek in a new board member, whether explicitly stated or not, is ‘fit’ with the existing board members. They want persons who will be team players, persons who will not upset the board culture, persons who are open to embracing the key goals and values of the existing organizational leaders. But, assuming the board is strong and secure, they will also want persons who will contribute new ideas and perspectives and maybe disrupt the board culture in a healthy and productive way in the best interests of the organization.
Thoughtful, strategic, responsive, and prepared
Every healthy board wants board members who exhibit these characteristics that I decided should be collectively treated as one characteristic (admittedly, just because I wanted to keep the list to 10). While all of the other 9 characteristics in this list are important, they have less meaning if the board member is not thoughtful, strategic, responsive, and prepared (TSRP). The value of skills and perspectives is lost without TSRP. And unfortunately, too many otherwise super-qualified board members fail to see this.
Generous with respect to making a meaningful contribution to the organization
Many nonprofits have a give-or-get requirement. Critics will say that this can create an elitist board that does not value DEI. Supporters will say this helps ensure that board members have fully embraced their leadership roles in the organization and signals to others that the board believes that the organization is worth supporting. While there may be no right way of thinking about this issue for every organization, a balanced perspective might be to require a contribution from every board member that is meaningful to them, whether such contribution is of money or time and effort beyond the board member’s typical board duties (e.g., fundraising support, participation on an ad hoc committee to study DEI, volunteering to support specific programmatic activities).
Representative of one or more communities that is underrepresented in the organization’s leadership
Nonprofits have faced criticism for not including on their boards representatives of the communities they serve. Some have taken steps to address such criticism, but fewer have made strides towards ensuring inclusion and engagement of these board members from underrepresented communities. Part of the problem is the ‘chicken-and-egg’ dilemma: It’s difficult to build meaningful strategies for inclusion without the participation and leadership of persons whose communities are not represented on the board. There may be several ways to address this issue, including the use of a committee that helps create such strategies for the organization prior to its election of more diverse board members, but it’s likely that most boards will simply hope for solutions to come from the board members from the underrepresented communities. See, e.g., Nonprofit Governance: Board Composition; Compensating Nonprofit Board Members (see the BIPOC Considerations).
Experienced and skilled in one or more areas of importance to the organization
Many boards recruit using a diversity matrix with skills or professions being one dimension of the desired diversity. A board may want to include among their directors a lawyer, an accountant, a fundraiser, a financial or investment manager, an HR expert, another organization’s chief executive, and typically more than one person with expertise in the programmatic activities of the organization. Of course, every board has different criteria, but having one or more board members who have a strong understanding in areas of importance can help the executive and the organization make more informed and thoughtful decisions.
Enthusiastic about acting as an ambassador for the organization to their networks and to the broader community
Nonprofits value board members who champion their organizations, particularly to groups that might not otherwise be familiar with the importance of their work. Such ambassadors can build awareness among prospective donors, employees, volunteers, donors, and other supporters. They can advocate for policies that will help support the communities benefited by an organization. And they can bring back information from their networks to the attention of the organization’s other leaders, which may be incredibly valuable in planning and adapting.