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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Matchmaker Make Me a Match
Identifying your best board candidates

By Maureen Robinson

At a workshop organized to explore board-staff relations, the executive directors in attendance were asked to share an anecdote defining the low point in their relationships with their various boards.

One recounted finding a board member at her desk calmly going through her in-box. A second described the moment a member of the board challenged him to a duel.  Still another described a trustee, who without a word to anyone, posted an automobile from the museum’s collection on eBay. Clearly, there was room for improvement.

A few months later, another workshop -- this one attended mostly by board members. The conversation, while not filled with incidents as dramatic as duels, contained a steady roll call of frustration with fellow board members who failed to show, failed to listen, played politics with important decisions, and seemed to take perverse pleasure in making others feel small.

Baffled by the complaints, one attendee stood up. What was the point of serving on a board, she wanted to know, if the experience was as miserable as the discussion indicated?

There was an embarrassed silence while people slowly shifted perspective, turned away from the sometimes funny but still frustrating lapses in good governance that seemed to surround them, and allowed more positive thoughts to filter in. In the lull, it was like watching large ships change direction; you envisioned little tugboats of goodwill pulling them toward a better frame of mind.

It was a showstopper of a question. And a very chastening moment. One of the ironies of working hard to improve nonprofit governance is the way the effort obscures what’s working in favor of the often dispiriting list of things that aren’t.

After we've set minimum standards for performance in terms of attendance, personal giving, or service on a committee, how do we legislate for the controlling personality, the inner circle, the meeting to meeting amnesiac? What does an executive director do with the person who has modeled his board persona on Gordon Gekko at his ranting worst in Wall Street?  What do we do about the less dramatic but just as unsettling board members who seem to fade away, losing either heart or an appetite for the job?

Whatever the organization, we need the whole of the board to be at least the sum of its parts; more often we need the whole to be much, much more. This puts pressure on each board member to bring as much to the table as possible, to find the work important, appreciate its true value, and take real pleasure in the difference such service can make.

For those nominating committees anxious to minimize the risk of choosing “wrong,” develop the habit of suggesting board candidates ask themselves the few hard questions suggested below. And listen carefully to the answers. The responsibility for making good matches is mutual. The phrase “repent at leisure” was undoubtedly coined in a board room.
• How important is their mission to me and who do they serve?

Am I moved or excited by the thought of being a part of this organization? Listen carefully to that little voice in your head and heart.

• Why did you ask me?

What do you think I can do that is useful? Make sure what they want you for is what you're willing to do. If you're good at math but sick of numbers, don’t join a board that's looking at you as the next treasurer.

• Who else is on the board? 

What are they like? This is not a snobby question but one that goes to temperament and style. If in joining the board you represent some kind of change, it's important to know if you'll have company or be a pioneer. How happy you will be in this role? If you want to spend your volunteer time with a socially congenial group or one that is super efficient, then it's important to have a sense of the board’s working style and board members’ relationships to each other.

• What’s the biggest challenge facing the organization?

These days all nonprofits are beleaguered in one way or another, but some are facing calamitous situations as a result of poor leadership or negligent governance. You have a right to choose your challenges and if one of the first assignments turns out to be terminating the executive director, you should know that going in. You should also know if you're being brought in to help outnumber and overwhelm difficult or indifferent board members who have thus far resisted efforts at improvement.

• Can you give me a recent example of when the board really made a difference?

Part of the pleasure of board service is being able to connect the dots between sitting through meetings, participating on committees and seeing the results of these efforts in the performance or health of the organization.  There is no pleasure, much less value, in being only marginally useful.

• What is the time commitment?

Get a complete picture. Find out about the number and length of meetings and when they are held. Ask about committee work and about other volunteer expectations, like planning or volunteering at special events. It adds up. If you have the time, great. If not, don’t let the board settle for less from you than they need and expect from others. There are ways to be useful to an organization that don’t involve board service.

• What am I expected to do in the area of personal giving and fund raising?

Make it a personal policy to provide an annual contribution from your own pocket to the organizations for which you serve as a board member. When you know what you can afford, make this clear so that the organization can tell you if it's consistent with its own policy on board giving and whether it fits with the practice of current members. If the organization needs a larger commitment than you can make, err on the side of being a highly appreciated donor rather than a board member who is out of step with his or her peers.

If there's a clear expectation about raising funds (which there should be), don’t allow dysfunctional politeness to keep you from finding out what the expectation is, the various ways in which board members participate in the fund raising process, and the extent to which the organization can support board efforts.

If you genuinely can’t do it or don’t want to, speak now. This is why the first question about mission is important. You need to be completely persuaded by the mission and the value and impact of the organization’s work to do anything as tough as ask others for money.

• Can I learn more about the organization before I give you my decision?

The time to get to know the organization in some depth is not after election to the board but before. Orientation programs are essential but often come a little late in the game. It should be possible to see the organization in action. Don’t settle for a dog and pony show and a guided tour. Figure out with the executive director a way to see the organization in action.

As I review this list of worthy questions, I wonder how many organizations would be able to provide sufficiently encouraging responses to make board service sound rewarding, how many prospective board candidates would have serious second thoughts. I suspect the process would yield more yes's than no's. At heart we want these organizations to succeed, and we want to play in a part in making this happen.

While it is always wise to reserve the right to say no and to exercise it when you feel you must, it's also worth remembering what a uniquely satisfying experience serving on a board can be, even when the organization and the board could use some fine tuning, even when a member jumps the rails. 

With some luck you'll find yourself in a room surrounded by peers who share your appetite for doing good work, comparing notes, trading stories, and thanking your lucky stars that -- so far at least -- dueling hasn't been required.

Maureen K. Robinson is the author of Nonprofit Boards that Work: The End of One-Size-Fits-All Governance, published by John Wiley & Sons, and a consultant in the areas of nonprofit leadership and management, strategic planning and organizational development.


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