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Assembling a Great Board

(April 21, 2009) What characteristics make for good board members? What sort of people are missing from your board? Simone Joyaux, ACFRE, says choosing the right board means going beyond affluence and influence. Great board members are brutally honest, passionate and collaborative.

“We as fundraisers, especially, need to understand that serving on the board is not all about money,” says Joyaux. “You might be a terrific candidate for a board and be a father of six who works in a kitchen. I’m violently opposed to the idea that boards should be composed of those with the most wealth and influence in a community. Do your values match that of our organization? Are you passionate about the cause? Do you bring something new? Those are the questions to be answered.

“Creating the best board involves understanding what makes groups work,” she says. “A good board member is candid, self-aware, even outspoken. But they know how to work for the good of the whole, not for their personal agenda and self interest.”

“Good board members are active in the deliberation of the group,” Joyaux explains. “First of all, they attend the meeting, they don’t just submit comments via email. Governance is about having a conversation. Your opinions may change when you hear deeper analysis and the issue is fully explored.” Therefore, a board member’s ability to listen, communicate and be a team player are just as important as personal connections and ability to give.

Another group dynamic that needs to be actively sought in boards is a high level of candor.  Boards should never shy away from disagreement. “Most boards suffer from dysfunctional politeness,” Joyaux says, recounting a quote from Alfred P. Sloan, long-time president and chairman of General Motors. In a board meeting, Sloan said about an important decision: “I take it that everyone is in basic agreement about this decision?” Everyone nodded yes. Sloan replied, “Then I suggest we postpone the decision. Until we have some disagreement, we don’t understand the problem.”

Diverse Skills and Diverse Opinions

Great boards are able to look at themselves and look around the table and ask, “What’s missing here?” or rather, “Who’s missing?” Joyaux says. You’re looking for people with the skills necessary to govern, provide vision and hold the organization accountable. Each person should bring something to the table. The same is true for life experience. The experiences of life differ among individuals and across cultures. Diversity of opinion builds strength, she explains.

What is the overall direction of your organization? What are its values? These are important things to consider when meeting with potential board members. Engage new people and expand your boundaries beyond friends of current board members. Look for a good fit beyond affluence and influence. Reach out to new communities. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results.

Simone P. Joyaux, ACFRE, is a consultant specializing in governance, fund development and strategic planning. She is the author of Strategic Fund Development: Building Profitable Relationships That Last and Keep Your Donors: The Guide To Better Communications and Stronger Relationships. Joyaux is a faculty member of the Master's Program in Philanthropy and Development at Saint Mary's University in Minnesota.  She serves regularly on boards, founded the Women's Fund of Rhode Island and is a former chair of CFRE International.

More Resources

A Tool for Analyzing Board Composition

Sample Performance Expectations of a Board Member

Questions for Developing an Effective Board

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