Board Selection Mnemonics

 A post by James V. Toscano

mne·mon·ics: the process or technique of improving or developing the memory

Let’s trot out the old chestnuts, those alliterative mnemonics often quoted in training and articles about the type people who should be on a nonprofit organization’s board.

Governance is always one of the leading topics of discussion and controversy in nonprofits, both in sector and academic circles. One sometimes hears three prescriptive letters summarizing desired qualities of prospective board members, sometimes not understood, sometimes dismissed, sometimes used cynically, and sometimes followed with insight.

A variety of “schools” e.g. Carver, Benevan, cite specific roles for Board members, although selection criteria of desirable characteristics in members still varies tremendously.

Fifty years ago, it was much easier, with most boards made up of the traditional categories: inherited wealth, top business and financial executives, professionals, and a sprinkling of wives of the above.

Now, in a much larger and more complex nonprofit world, we have created elaborate lists of desired qualities. I’ve served on Boards where we all fit into one or more boxes in a “balanced” matrix! Perhaps this new matrix of board qualities used by nominating committees has completely replaced the alphabetics, although it is still useful to review them. There may still be merit, perhaps wisdom, in the various clichéd alliterations.

The use of these mnemonic devices was never more than a jog to the memory of what was needed, with any  subsequent substantive elaborations going much deeper.  The unwritten rule used in selection was that individuals had to have not one but at least two of the virtues listed.

Let’s look at the more commonly used:

3W: Wealth, Wisdom and Work

3T: Time, Treasure and Talent

3D: Doers, Doorknockers and Donors 

3M: Money, Marketing and Management 

There was also a board retention rule followed by governance committees when a member was up for re-nomination:

3G: Give, Get or Get Off 

What do these “rules” tell us about desirable characteristics of Board members serving in the twenty-first century? What relevant truths are these old saws telling us? Let’s look deeply into the implicit content of these clichés for their deeper meaning.

One of the clearest and most desirable qualities is leadership. The community’s movers and shakers are those who are wanted. They are those aware of the larger trends in the society, those anticipating the future, so as to steer the nonprofit successfully and significantly in its role to provide social benefit. They are those who bring expertise on the variety of elements of organizational life needed for success and impact.

Leadership no longer should be recruited from one social class or demographic group, but from the multiplicity of networks comprising the relevant community leadership needed to serve the organization’s mission.

Board members must be activists. Lending one’s name to a board list is insufficient, unacceptable. One must not only attend meetings, serve on committees, support activities, engage actively in the development program and lead in stewardship but also actively participate in the significant decision-making guiding all of the organization’s activity. (See my piece on what a Board member needs to do.)

Financial astuteness is a must at a time when budgets and finances are critical in the sustenance of the organization. Reading a balance sheet, budgeting, managing an endowment, understanding compensation and understanding marketing, social media and e-philanthropy are all essentials

So is the recognition of the role as donor as well as prospect identifier and gift solicitor. Historically, in an era of reciprocity, board members understood this. They no longer necessarily do, so a written job description used in the recruiting process based on the desired traditional virtues might come in handy, given they are easily understood. If anything, the mnemonics stress the overwhelming importance of this characteristic. Board members must participate in development at some level. (See my essay, Through the Eye of the Needle.)

With the larger range of financial resources of desirable members, not all members can be major donors, so the rule of three might be suggested: if one joins the board, ensure that the gift to the institution is one of the top three given each year.

Today’s societal complexities, demographic and social shifts, and dynamism signal the need for greater diversity, not symbolic but actual diversity in board composition, reflecting various, essential constituencies, both actual and virtual. Better, more comprehensive, successful decisions will result.

Combined with all of the above, the highest asset is, and has always been, the necessary wisdom to guide the organization to maximize its impact on society. Wisdom is found in experience. Wisdom is found in diversity. Wisdom is found in age, both old and young. Wisdom is discovered in a variety of places, and it is the ever-vigilant governance committee that continually searches for it.

The next twenty years will see profound changes in American and world societies. The nonprofit sector will not be immune to these changes. Along with executive directors and staff, the choices for Board membership will be among the most crucial decision processes in determining success, viability, impact, perhaps even existence.

To use the wisdom of the past in helping to select the leadership of the future may not be an entirely bad idea.

  1. Paula Hart Says: July 10, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Jim, Thought provoking and helpful! Thank you — Paula Hart, Volunteers of America MN

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