Where Have All the Good Board Members Gone?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 18th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

0 comment

Picture this:  I’m about halfway through a virtual board training on the basic roles and responsibilities of a nonprofit board for one that desperately needs to learn what it is really supposed to be doing, instead of what the dissatisfied executive director allows it to do. 

I may have mentioned “passion” a few times and how important it is for board members to be passionate about the organization’s mission in order to be that really good board member. I had just asked a question of the group to which a board member—a lawyer—responds. He leads with noting that he’s been on four different boards and no one has every asked about his passion for the mission.The only thing, they want to know is: How large a check I can write and how many tables will I buy at the gala and can I show my face at a meeting or two? That’s all. He adds, “I’ve never been asked to do  any work.”  

I assured him that I was well aware of boards and organizations like that, but they were the minority, not practicing best practices and generally run by executive directors who want to control the whole show rather than have a healthy partnership with the board.

I would most likely have forgotten the lawyer’s comments, except the next day I taught full-day class for staff and board members from a mixture of nonprofits on best practices in nonprofit governance. A participant wrote into the chat box a question that started out, “Given that a board’s only job is to fundraise….”  

No need to read the rest of the question. We were well into the day and I’d literally mentioned the word “fundraising” just once, whereas I had, by that time, talked about responsibilities in the area of finance and governance, and mentioned a few others, saying we would delve into them later in the day. So, how had this person gleaned from what I’d said thus far that the only purpose of a board was fundraising?  He likely was channeling what others had told him, and they were sharing myth and/or misinformation.  

A woman in this same class made the pronouncement that everyone knows it is so hard to find good board members because all of the good ones are already serving on multiple other boards. I asked what the adult population of the region these nonprofits serve—just under 100,000.  Even if we discount the adults for whatever reason wouldn’t qualify as good eligible board candidates, there are more than enough possible good candidates for these nonprofit boards. A bit over 11,000 discrete adults would allow each nonprofit board in the region to have a board of 15. Out of 100,000,11,000 couldn’t be found?

How is it that people who chronologically fit the definition of adult, who have degrees that suggest “educated” can be so dense as to generalize to the whole from incredibly limited experience and knowledge? Why do they so readily accept the thinking of their others as gospel without fact checking? And why are they in leadership positions and still know so little whole feeling comfortable pontificating? Yes, nonprofits need and want board members to give, but all the money a board can give isn’t going to help the organization get the rest of the funding it needs if the board does nothing else.  Sure, finding good board members is work, but it isn’t hard.  

Long ago, I gave up thinking that people researched what they didn’t know before they agreed to do it. And by “researched,” I mean sought out experts, either by speaking to them, reading what they have to say and, these days, watching what they have to say.  But today, even with the ease of accessing experts, people still don’t bother to learn before they jump in. 

That would be an interesting set of questions to ask of board candidates. (Asking anything of board candidates assumes, of course, that there is a real process for selecting board members that includes multiple interactions and conversations with candidates.) It would be interesting to ask them what they already “know” about what it means to be a member of a nonprofit board and just what is the source of this “knowledge.” It is a great screening question, saving those boards looking for good board members a lot of time and trouble. 

A candidate who says, “I don’t know what a board/board member does”and yet doesn’t ask for enlightenment should be a clear no. If s/he doesn’t bother to investigate the unknown—either before the interview or on the spot—and seeks no knowledge before pushing forward is not what any board needs at its table. A person who will blithely push on without understanding what s/he is agreeing to, who will agree to do things about which s/he knows nothing and, therefore, can’t possibly understand what the ramifications of his/her actions may be, is not what any board needs.  A person who admits to knowing nothing but at least asks for an explanation on the spot is a person I wouldn’t immediately discard; rather, I’d put her/him through a rigorous process of more questions and education and unquestionably make him/her serve time on a board committee before s/he could even be considered for a board seat. (As an aside, I would require anyone who wants to serve on the board to serve time on a committee first.)  

To the person who responds with, “Yes, I know what is expected of a board/board member,” I would probe what knowledge s/he has and how s/he obtained that knowledge, and then proceed accordingly. It is far better to know at the start what people assume about the role of a board/board member than to wait to find it out after they have been on the board for a while.  

I doubt I changed the lawyer’s understanding of what should be expected of a board member. He came in “knowing” and I, with a mere 40 years of working and studying boards, was not going to override his knowledge based on having served on four boards.  

I am equally confident, however that the woman who said how hard it is to find board members and the man who said boards only have to fundraise, walked away from the class with different mindsets. I may not have convinced them, but each is thinking differently now than when they entered the class. Education doesn’t win every time, but the failure to educate board members will lose every single time. 

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.