What does it really take to govern a nonprofit? What are the essential qualities - beyond specific skills - that should be required of every board member?
I've been thinking about that a lot over the past year, as I immerse myself in the larger questions of nonprofit governance and as I help boards identify their own recruitment needs. Specific skills usually come to mind first when I lead boards through that process. They know they need legal expertise or someone who can help them decipher the profit and loss sheets.
But at least as important, if not more so, are what my friend, Hildy Gottlieb, would describe as the "must have" recruitment criteria: those qualities that are the bottom line for everyone in the room. Sometimes, there is a mission-specific skill or knowledge base that makes the list. Usually though, those "musts" are what I describe as dispositions: personal qualities that form the foundation for the wise deliberations and decisions expected of community leaders and stewards.
So what would I include on my list of essential board dispositions? This remains a work in progress, and my version may not look exactly like yours. But I offer it today in the spirit of sparking conversation about what we must expect of everyone who serves in our boardrooms.
Honesty. I hope the reason for this one is so obvious it's a no-brainer. But I also offer it - and offer it first - to illustrate the critical importance of the "must have" recruitment criteria. I actually had this conversation recently with a board working through its own list of needs. The question of how non-negotiable the "musts" should be arose: what happens if a prospect is good on most but not all of the criteria we identify? The underlying concern seemed to lie in the common assumption that the board can't be too picky - just finding individuals with any interest is tough enough. "Honesty" was on their list, and I asked them, "So what if that person is fantastic on everything here except honesty? Is that okay, to have a board member who struggles with the truth?" I posed the same question about a couple of the other qualities on their "must" list. It quickly became clear that "must" really does mean "must."
Intellectually curious. More than book smart (though a board member could be guilty of worse...), the intellectually curious board member is broadly knowledgeable and perpetually asking questions. Easy answers to easy, superficial questions aren't enough. The curious board member is not afraid to step outside of his or her comfort zone and is willing to explore the unfamiliar on the way to identifying the best possible response for the organization and those it serves. That member asks the compelling questions that others may not know to ask (or may hesitate to ask).
Practical wisdom. Members should have life experiences to understand the world around them and capacity to apply that wisdom appropriately when deliberating issues before the board.
Open-minded. Board members - especially those governing human service organizations, need to be able to consider a range of perspectives and experiences, many of which will be quite unlike their own. If they have signed on to uphold and advance the mission, they must avoid judgmental attitudes and behaviors that shut down their capacity to grasp the complexities of the work and the context in which it is conducted.
Discretion. The typical board member has access to often sensitive information when debating issues brought before the larger body. Knowing when to speak and when not to do so, understanding the need to speak publicly with one voice once a decision has been made, is a board must.
Strong listening skills. It's hard to take in, analyze and transform the full breadth of perspectives and information required to govern effectively if we're perpetually pushing our own agendas on the rest of the board - or practicing what we will say next to make our case. The capacity to listen and to reflect on what is being shared is essential to effective nonprofit leadership.
Whatever your board chooses to include on its list of essential qualities, it needs to frame and reinforce that foundation with current and potential members. Yes, our board members are human. Yes, we all will occasionally stumble. But without that bar, members lack a common understanding of what is expected of them and the board lacks the core qualities required to govern fully and effectively.
What are your essential board member dispositions?