How to Be a Great Board Member

how to be a good board memberYou never know whom you are going to sit next to at a bar mitzvah. I had the great fortune of sitting with an older woman who, for decades, has seen board service as a part of her life’s mission.

Clearly, I liked Gloria immediately.

Then, when she told me she never misses my blog posts, I liked her even more.

After we finished kvelling about the bar mitzvah boy, we discussed her current nonprofit.

“I serve on a very challenging board”, Gloria said. She began to describe her board challenges. She was right. Challenging.

When she told me about what she was doing to improve her board, I was impressed. Gloria was smart and clearly understood the big problems facing the organization.

  • An E.D. who saw the board as meddlesome
  • A board that was in fact meddlesome (well, not really in a bad way… just over-involved in minutiae)
  • Board members accustomed to playing the role of staff on small, grassroots boards that were now on the board of a larger organization with a staff of 30 and did not adjust their roles accordingly
  • A board chair that was not leading

But then Gloria told me a story about something that happened at a recent board meeting, and it hit me. There’s a key problem that Gloria failed to mention.

The problem… is Gloria.

GLORIA, THE ENABLING BOARD MEMBER

When I heard Gloria’s story I knew.

The new Executive Director put her foot down with the board (flag on the field, by the way – and a post for another day) and told them: “My staff will not take minutes; that’s the job of the Secretary.”

The Secretary said, “I’m a procrastinator. The minutes will never get out in a timely fashion.” Flag #2.

So guess who volunteered to take the minutes? My bar mitzvah buddy.

Gloria was enabling bad behavior.

I asked Gloria why she volunteered to take the minutes. Two key reasons:

  • I wanted to show the secretary how to do it, that the task wasn’t onerous.
  • Somebody had to do it and it would take me no time at all.

Do you think the secretary interpreted the offer as a training session?

No way. That secretary breathed a sigh of relief.

Gloria’s intentions were great. She wants to be a good board member… nay, a GREAT board member. She has all the raw materials. But unless she changes her approach, this board will never get its act together.

TELLTALE SIGNS OF AN ENABLING BOARD MEMBER

Here are 3 signs that your strongest board member may be enabling the weaknesses of the rest.

1) Portfolio Without Title

Everyone sees Gloria as the de facto leader of the organization so why should other board members step up?

2) Enabler to the Rescue

How could a secretary say he couldn’t take the minutes? That’s his job! But you can say it when Gloria is in the house.

3) Regular Use of “I Statements”

Listen closely. I say to Gloria, “The board needs to bring on new board members who ‘get’ what it means to be on a governing board with 30 paid staff. Your board needs more experienced members.”

She opens her response with, “I have been trying to seek out new board members.”

HOW TO BE A GOOD BOARD MEMBER

Time for a quick quiz:

Where can Gloria be of the most value?

  1. Board Chair
  2. Stepping off the board
  3. Chair of Nominations Committee
  4. No leadership title of any sort

My answer: (3) Chair of the Nominations Committee.

Why?

First off, enabling board members often were board chairs and of course this was true for Gloria. She gave up the title but not the portfolio so she could run again and match title and portfolio. But this doesn’t really solve the problem.

Secondly, Gloria is needed on this board. In the right role she is an agent of change so she should not step down.

The last option is the current situation. She is powerful and influential but enabling weakness without a particular role.

The place she can have the greatest impact is to chair the Nominations Committee, leading efforts to change the make up of the board. This is a board of 15 members and even a small handful of new people carefully selected for skills, attributes, prior board experience, and leadership potential changes the dynamic completely.

The bottom line: Gloria should find 4 – 5 people who would be able replacements for her determination, passion, and commitment to this board.

It’s time for Gloria to be a leader by finding new leaders.

GLORIA IS A ROCK STAR

I felt mighty lucky to spend time with her this weekend.

In her decades of nonprofit experience, she has even done board trainings to help them to be more effective. In the right role, Gloria can exert leadership of the lasting variety.

Leadership is a superpower but it must be used carefully and appropriately to be effective. What does it look like on your board? Is it something you have? Something you wish you had? Share your thoughts in the Comments below and I’ll weigh in on each of them.

Thanks to all the Glorias out there. Here’s hoping this story resonates for some of you and helps you to identify a role that allows you to lead in a way that makes the board stronger as a result.

NEXT: Critical Interview Questions for Nonprofit Board Members

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Kbaumgae

    What was the lesson she implemented right away?

    • Talking to the Board Chair about leading nominations committee and going to try to leave a void of silence (exhibit restraint)when a volunteer is sought for a board project!!!

  • Fostering a culture of shared responsibility and accountability is one of the hardest things in working with nonprofit boards in my experience. These two action steps are excellent. Did the board ever have an explicit conversation about the dynamics and challenges she was facing?

  • VegasWineDine

    Great article. My board could benefit from this.

  • Mary

    I know this isn’t the point of the post, but….who should take minutes? Staff or Secretary?

    • Pam Herbert Saussy

      I have been a board secretary and an ED (different boards). My understanding is that taking minutes is the job of the board secretary. Having a staff member take minutes (in my opinion) violates the privacy of the board to be able to discuss potentially staff-impacting issues without having that information leaked back out to the staff out of context.

      • Matthew Ramsey

        Why did Joan say it was a flag for the ED to put her foot down in this case?

        • Pam Herbert Saussy

          Possibly the original point of the ED seeing the board as meddlesome; i.e., drawing a line in the sand rather than helping solve the issue of getting minutes done. Being part of the problem rather than the solution?

  • Scott Gee

    Unfortunately about 1/3 of my board is like Gloria, but they have also served as Nominations Chair.

  • thayv

    I think a very important post. I am an ED and feel very frustrated that a long time board member as Secretary has not been able to make at least 2 board meetings and late to join the last one to take minutes. It then seems to fall to me or my one staff to take the minutes. She was just renewed for a board term and as Secretary which was not my preference and felt we needed a new board member to bring new ideas and attitude onto the board. This last time I recorded our teleconference board meeting and sent her a copy to do minutes from. A number of board members see we need a governance committee, term limits yet they are reluctant to rock the boat due to ones who resist. We have an opportunity to do more yet board members who think they are indispensable to be part of the board.

  • I want to cry! Thank you! I just had a board meeting, some people didn’t show, some think everything I do is the only thing that should be done, because I’m the Founder. It’s only my job! I really need to focus on the next phase of getting board members and creating my list and Orientation to have a better experience. Everything you stated on I need to focus on!