09 May Qualities That Make a Good Board Member
9 May 2023
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
It’s conference season in land trust world, and I have been thrilled at being back in person! After several years of trying to do conferences over ZOOM, I am grateful that we are back in 3D.
In one of my major gift sessions recently, 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 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 the symphony board.”
People of color are poor? The only alternative to a wealthy white board (like the symphony) is one where some don’t give because they’re too 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. And that we should never presume that someone – anyone – is too poor to give.
But there’s a larger point: We don’t want people to give money because they are on the Board, and we don’t want people to give money so that they can be on the Board. That’s like selling Board positions.
NO – we want people to give because they believe in the mission. And we want people who believe in the mission to serve on the Board.
ERGO, when we need to recruit Board members, we should look first at the people who give money because they believe in the mission. If there is a community leader we would like to recruit, but who doesn’t yet support the organization, we need to ask them to support the organization first. If they say NO, what makes us think they will be good Board members? And if our mission is not relevant enough to the local BIPOC community to warrant support, we have bigger problems anyway.
A few years ago, Nancy Moore, Peter McKeever, 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 our minds, might even be the single most important criteria. It is usually 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. And you don’t really want people who either don’t give at all, or give only because they have to.
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 represent the land trust and help it connect more effectively with each of those communities, you’ve lost an opportunity.
And BTW, don’t forget to prioritize geographic diversity!
After representing their communities and agreeing to be an Ambassador back into those 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 in their community to be able to collect followers just because they’re leading?
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.
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 the 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’s our list. Notice that we did not include specific skills in hopes that we will be able to exploit them. If we find ourselves with a board made up of these kinds of people but no attorneys from whom to exploit free legal advice, so be it. Let’s not forget that professionals can volunteer without being rewarded with a Board position.
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.
PPS: Most of this post was originally published in May of 2017.
Photo by Ian Livesey, courtesy stocksnap.io