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The Truth About Board Members

by Julia Erickson

In the field of non-profit Board development, the hoariest of old saws is that Board members must possess three W's - Wealth, Wisdom, and Wit. I've also heard and said that non-profit Board members need to bring one or more of these things: money, contacts, clout, and expertise - and in that order. Here's my unofficial ranking of Board members, based on my many years working with Boards and many conversations with colleagues.

  • The best Board members give and get significant sums of money to fill the organization's coffers and cover payroll and other costs of delivering our very- needed services. It's even better if they ask few operational questions and generally support staff efforts while doing their "due diligence" to understand what's happening and its ramifications.

    That kind of hands-off monitoring is a rarer occurrence over time, especially with the growing population of social venture capitalists, venture philanthropists, and other emigres from management firms, investment banks and private equity firms convinced they have the appropriate tools and outlook to make charity efficient and hopefully also effective. Apparently, the mind-set is that the more money you give or the more corporate/capitalist experience you have, the more right you have to second guess staff and question operational process and decisions. Smart ED's understand and expect that - as do their fellow Board members - even if we'd prefer that these Board members learn that "due diligence" doesn't mean hands-on management.

  • Next-best Board members use their clout and connections to get donations of goods and services, things for which we'd have to pay cash otherwise. These Board members are next-best because staff have no choice as to what resources they provide; we must take what we are given whether it meets all the organization's needs or not - and we must be grateful for it.

  • Further down the scale, we have Board members who know influential people and are willing to lobby on the organization's behalf for some kind of advantage. Hopefully, the advantage is pecuniary but political is acceptable. While it's good to have such a Board member, it's just good - not great. Why? Staff can often develop better relationships and there's always the possibility of hiring a lobbying firm that has the best relationships of all.

  • Last on the scale are Board members who actually know something about the issue the organization works on - unless they also have money, contacts and clout. You'd think it would be an advantage to have a knowledgeable person on the Board. Wouldn't they be able to offer so much to the staff? Well, yes, and therein can lie the problem. These Board members may have opinions about how the organization should be run that run counter to the instincts and talents of the ED and senior leadership.

If those Board members are indeed wise, they can be hands-off advisors and thought partners for the ED, as well as effective advocates for staff with the Board. That's in the best of all possible worlds. In that case, these are the very best Board members. Sadly, unless they are founders, such Board members are often "retired" from the Board after their service is up, especially as an organization grows in scope, visibility and prestige.

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About the Author:

Julie Erickson coaches people to make great work transitions. During her 25+ year career in public service, Julie led NYC's City Harvest for 11 years, and then was interim Executive Director for Bette Midler's New York Restoration Project. She attended Smith College and has an MBA. Julie was James Beard Foundation's 2003 Humanitarian of the Year, and one of Women's Day's "Women Who Inspire Us" in 2002.

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