Board members are passionate, responsive, driven, and engaged. A nonprofit board member usually has a strong interest in the work they do, and a personal need to propel their organization into success. But how can a board member stand out as exceptional, especially in a major leadership role? You can begin by meeting certain expectations.
First of all, there’s the basic expectation to show up and be prepared. Being a board member can be a full-time job on top of another full-time job; it demands preparedness and consistency. A truly engaged board member will actively prepare in advance, show up to meetings, and respond to communications in a timely fashion. The more involved a board member is, the more likely they are to understand the true pulse and the flow of the nonprofit.
A second necessity is the ability to evolve productively. Just like commercial businesses, nonprofits often become enamored with change. It’s understandable: board members are often introduced with new ideas and a deep desire to “shake things up.” But change isn’t inherently good nor is it always the path toward progress. A good board member must be as willing to keep the good as they are to throw out the bad.
Change for the sake of change is often used to prove a point, especially when a nonprofit board has gone through a recent overhaul of some kind. However, it should be kept in mind that change is always costly, not only in terms of money, but also time and effort.
A less talked about characteristic of a great board member is a willingness to engage with the rest of the board outside of meetings. Exceptional board members don’t just go to board meetings; they also remain active on the ground level. By continuing to volunteer and work with the nonprofit, a board member ensures that they know what’s really going on and that they don’t become disassociated from the day-to-day realities of their processes. This opens them up to better, more relevant ideas regarding improvement. Not everyone has the ability to be in the soup kitchen or animal shelter weekly, but a general familiarity with staff and the mission is crucial.
This next trait of an exceptional board member applies to every area of life: the willingness to accept criticism and facilitate open communication. Being open to criticism doesn’t mean that a board member has to act on that feedback all the time. Rather, it’s important to recognize criticisms as well as identify their origins. Another board member may complain that you never listen to them: what they may really be trying to convey is that they have ideas that haven’t been addressed. Understanding criticism and communicating effectively strengthen relationships.
Likewise, making time for communication and asking others their thoughts can open the doors to untapped potential. There are many board members who may be quieter than others but still have equally valid (or even better) ideas.
An important thing to remember is that even the best ideas, communication, rapport, and skill sets are useless without a culture of following through on tasks.
Nonprofit boards are notorious for talking about change but never actually implementing it, or communicating in circles but not getting things done. It’s easy to see why: a diffusion of responsibility also leads to a diffusion of accountability. Becoming the person who ensures that ideas are followed to completion will make you stand out as an exceptional board leader.
We often talk about how board members need to be skilled at leveraging their networks for fundraising. Just as important, a great board member can tap his or her network for expertise and advice for the board. As a board member, you’re an expert in your nonprofit. However, you’re obviously not an expert in all the professional areas your nonprofit may need. The best board members are able and willing to reach out to experts and specialists as needed, to find the best strategies for achieving goals. Working with talented, driven individuals when necessary will give you a better idea of where to go, and bring more human capital into the mix.
Finally, organizational skills are often overlooked when recruiting a board member. Not all board members find binders, paperwork, and project management suites appealing, but some method of accountability is vital for success. Today, there are a number of project management and task management solutions that can be used to keep yourself organized and make sure you don’t miss appointments and meetings. Modern leadership has learned to lean on these new technological tools to be reliable, consistent, and valuable.
There are a lot of factors that contribute to becoming an exceptional board member. Some of the experience is going to be trial and error, as well as learning from more experienced board members and mentors. With an attitude of learning, growth, and openness, you can become the kind of board member that new recruits will look up to and want to emulate.
About Jeb Banner:
Jeb is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a nonprofit board management software provider. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way of Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Boardable is an online board management portalthat centralizes communication, document storage, meeting planning, and everything else that goes into running a board of directors. Founded in 2017 by nonprofit leaders and founders, Boardable has a mission to improve board engagement for nonprofits. Boardable is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.