You need to know what to avoid before you can succeed
The conventional way to discuss what to look for when you select board members is to focus on positive traits and desirable skills. But in order to put together a strong board of directors that will steer your not-for-profit to great things, you also need to foresee what characteristics might create problems — or render your board imbalanced, improperly motivated or ineffective.
With that in mind, here’s a look at four things you shouldn’t do when selecting board members and why avoiding these moves is important to your organization’s well-being. Keep these tips in mind as you interview potential board members and vet referrals.
1. Don’t choose overly dominant personalities. Nonprofits often look for successful, sometimes highly visible, leaders in their community, and many of these individuals have strong personalities. That’s fine. Just be careful that you don’t get an outspoken “my way or the highway” individual to whom other board members feel they always must defer.
To be effective, board members must work as a team as they determine strategic direction, establish policy, provide fiduciary oversight and so on. Board members need to know how to compromise and provide mutual support — in other words, there’s no room for superegos. You can promote teamwork by holding special events outside of the boardroom, such as mixers, workshops and retreats where board members can get to know and respect one another.
2. Don’t select all followers. Conversely, some nonprofits gravitate toward individuals who they perceive, consciously or not, will “go with the program.” But every board needs strong leadership ability, vision and foresight. Board members also need to act independently from staff and management. And there’s not much room for wallflowers when key responsibilities include an active role in fundraising, recruiting and promoting the organization’s programs.
Nonprofits also need board members who will take their fiduciary responsibilities seriously and are willing to speak up — and blow whistles — if they see wrongdoing. Moreover, they must be brave advocates of your mission as they carry your banner within, and perhaps outside, the community.
3. Don’t end up with opportunists. Another bad choice is an individual who looks at the organization only for what it might do for him (or her) personally or professionally. For example, consider the bank vice president whose interest in the organization doesn’t exceed getting your nonprofit’s business, which is clearly a conflict of interest.
Board members are pieces of a larger puzzle, and everyone should bring something to the game. As the organization eyes potential board candidates, it should have particular skill sets in mind, such as financial expertise, HR background, business leadership skills and so on. Board members should complement, rather than echo, one another in their strengths and experience — and be dedicated to putting the organization first.
4. Don’t throw them into the mix without direction. Some nonprofits are so caught up in day-to-day operations that they fail to take time to properly offer new board members insight into the structure of their organization and its culture. Make sure you present a brief history of your nonprofit and introduce staff as part of the orientation process.
New members will benefit from formal training in governance, fiduciary duties, financial oversight, organizational assessment, fundraising and other topics that are particular to your organization and its mission. A specialist in nonprofit board member training can help facilitate your program.