03 May Qualities of Good Board Members
3 May 2022
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
Note: Most of this post was originally published in 2017.
My workshop was about major gift fundraising (of course), and I had come to the part where Board members need to give themselves first. How can we ask people to give when we are not willing or able to give yourselves?
The pushback was sincere, if not predictable.
“But what about board members who can’t give money?”
What do you mean, can’t give money?
“Well they’re on the Board for other reasons. They represent underprivileged social classes, or people of color.”
People of color can’t give money?
“Well, they’re poor. We don’t want a Board that is made of wealthy whites – like a symphony board.”
All people of color are poor?
It’s a stupid argument, and I have gotten better at side-stepping it. My frame of reference is that all Board members give money themselves – period. Any amount greater than zero counts. And people who can give more should give more. It’s as much about setting the bar for others than it is about giving period. Don’t give until it hurts. Give until it feels good.
And that we should never presume that someone – anyone – is “too poor to give.” How do you spell arrogant?
The argument is also flawed on so many other levels. The only alternative to a wealthy white board (like a symphony) is one where not everyone gives because they’re too poor?
A few years ago, some friends and I were drinking beer and grousing about recruiting accountants and attorneys just because of their profession. What if they make lousy Board members?
So, we came up with our own list of qualities to look for in a Board member. Here, with some embellishment, is that list:
Recruit Passionate About the Mission
This, in my mind, might even be the single most important criteria. It is always a mistake to recruit a Board member and hope that they fall in love with the organization later. Giving money is a big clue, though it’s not the only one. People who self-select by giving money to support the organization and its mission are telling you that what you’re doing is important enough to them to want to see it happen. It’s not the only thing, but it’s an important thing.
Put it this way: I would rather have someone on the Board who started giving because they believed in the mission than someone who started giving SO THAT they could be on the Board.
There it is – right after “passionate about mission.” But there’s a lot more to diversity than ethnicity and gender. List the various communities that make up your service territory. You want to have Board members who will help the organization connect with each of these communities. So, you want to recruit people who represent “access” into those communities, but also people who are willing to use that access to help you connect.
For example, consider the agricultural community. You want to recruit one or several Board members who can not only represent the point of view of farmers, but who will also talk credibly to the agricultural community about your land trust and programs – and why they support you.
Recruiting a farmer, or an attorney, or an African American, or a Latino, or a young mother, or a member of the business community, or a members of the women’s professional community – all these are great, but if they aren’t willing to also represent the land trust and help it connect more effectively with each of those communities, you’ve lost an opportunity.
I don’t buy the argument that members of these communities don’t support land conservation. If your land trust is not supported by the communities it serves, you have different problems.
And BTW, don’t forget geographic diversity!
After representing their communities and agreeing to be an ambassador back into their communities, you want to reach as far up the leadership spectrum as possible. Whose voice seems to carry the farthest in that community? Who has the charisma, stature, and respect to be able to collect followers just because they’re leading?
We need more from our Board members than just participation in decision-making. We need people who can help the organization grow. We need Board members to work. And we need people on the Board who can grow into Board leadership as well.
Recruit Smart, Curious, and Willing to Learn – Not Afraid to Ask Questions
Few people will come to your Board with everything they need to “plug and play.” And the learning curve for land trust work is pretty steep. You want people who will dedicate themselves to coming up to speed quickly and who are willing to ask questions when they are lost. You want to recruit people who will participate actively.
Recruit Integrity and Good Judgement
Does this person make good decisions? Are they trustworthy? Also consider Listens Well to be an important factor here.
Recruit both Strategic and Analytical Thinking Skills
Land Trusts need people who can connect disparate pieces of information and integrate them to see a larger picture. Land Trusts need people who see possibilities and get beyond the “if” to figure out the “how.” But Land Trusts also need the opposite – people who can interpret patterns in data to see trends and how they might affect the organization’s work. (This might be a good reason to recruit an accountant – because they are analytical thinkers instead of simply to Chair your Finance Committee.)
Recruit Plays Well with Others, Sense of Humor
Is this person likeable? How do they handle stress? Are you going to want to work with them?
OK – so that was our list. Notice that we did not include specific skills or professions at all. Also notice that many accountants and attorneys (and biologists and BIPOC leaders) would meet all of these criteria. But if we find ourselves with a Board devoid of accountants and attorneys from whom to exploit free professional advice, so be it.
What would you add?
Cheers, and Have a great week!
PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.
Photo by Nathalie Burblis courtesy of Pixabay.