Ten Things to Look For in Prospective Board Members


A Post from  Dania Toscano Miwa and James V. Toscano

All of us need board members. With turnover, reluctance to serve and aging of that generation inured to board service, we are under constant pressure to recruit prospective members for nonprofit boards of directors. Where do we go? Who do we look for? What do we need?

There are those mnemonics: 3W, 3G, 3T and 3M, to name just a few.  Fun to recite, they are of very limited value in the actual selection process.

Yes, wealth, wisdom and work (3W) nail it on one level, although point nowhere. Same with  3T, Time, Talent and Treasure. There is some cynical wisdom in  3G, Give, Get or Get Off, while, writing in Minnesota, we need a requisite 3M rule–Management, Marketing and Money– bears some truth about contemporary needs.

With a million nonprofits now operating in the United States, we have, at a minimum, about 3-5 million board positions. More realistically, we probably have between 20 and 30 million, although multiple tenure would reduce the number of unique individuals serving.

Different Needs, Different People, Same Characteristics?

The needs of various organizations for Board members are quite different from each other. Different types of groups, in different sectors, at different stages of their organization life history, all need specific kinds of talents, substantive expertise, and, yes, personalities and dispositions.

Certainly diversity is most important in terms of age, ethnicity, religion and other important variables to fit the mix needed for optimal performance.

Yet, are there other, deeper orientations, characteristics, qualities that may apply to a broad swath of the nonprofit board needs out there?

Let’s test out ten, and see what you think.

1. Enthusiasm for Mission. A passion for the workings of the agency is the essential element in a great board member. People who truly understand and identify with what you are doing, with your value proposition and support it are those to be recruited.

2. Opinion Leader. One in ten people qualify as an opinion leader, those who initiate, help form and spread positions on issues ranging from very important to trivial. Communication of ideas rely on these individuals who dominate oral, written and media exchange of ideas, suspicions, prejudices and facts. You need these folks on your board.

3. Record of Ethics and Integrity. Quality people produce quality outcomes. The highest standards need to prevail to insure reputation, trust and public esteem. Board and staff must establish and assure community on these virtues, needed for long-term success.

4. Fully Engaged to Attend Board Meetings and Serve on Committees. Those who show make the decisions. You don’t need a list of names on your board; you need those names recorded on Board and committee meeting minutes demonstrating active and lively participation.

5. High Energy. Active, energetic, enthusiastic board members help establish an organization culture that will permeate the organization and guide it to great achievement and success. Such energy is like a magnet, attracting others, inspiring them, and motivating them to also participate and support.

6. Financially literate. Finance is not the be-all and end-all of the organization, although knowledge of finance, the ability to read a financial statement at the very least, is the sin qua non of board membership. In the current environment, sophistication about traditional and alternate sources of resources is a must. Financial sophistication is the gift that keeps giving.

7. Deep knowledge and experience in a field. Expertise magnifies the ability of a board member to contribute to the overall good and standing of the agency. Select those whose experience matches the needed operating requirements. Depending on group, attorneys, managers, accountants, marketers, community volunteers, nurses, doctors, researchers, clergy et al. can play a role. Do make sure that only a small percentage;  however, earn their living on a fee for service basis.

8. Willingness to Contribute Resources. Prospective members should understand that their responsibility to the group includes giving one of their top three charitable donations to the organization annually and giving ten times that to at least one capital campaign. Clearly, we want people who contribute much more than money, although all should follow this 3/10 rule, whether it is $10.00 or $10,000.

9. Willingness to Build Constituency. Connected to the above is a willingness to engage others in developing constituency for the organization. This would involve enlisting others to learn about the group, inviting them to functions, including fundraisers, and soliciting contributions. Nonprofits need people power in establishing, growing and maintaining a resource base.

10. Ability to Take a Long View and Plan. Strategic thinking, long-term vision, ability to understand and establish planning as a way of doing business are the bonus qualities that keep the organization vital and relevant, with a record of success and a bright, rosy future.

There are at least another ten or more of these elements that would enhance Board performance, so we would appreciate your testing these against your experience, coming up with others and building a constructive list of ten, twenty or more qualities needed. We’d love to hear your list.

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