Board Member as Leader and Agent of Change

Creating engaged, effective boards is one of the greatest challenges facing our nonprofits.  In fact, as a consultant often invited in to organizations to help solve major challenges, I find that board engagement is often the root cause of the identified “problem”.  So what do we do about this?

First, I think we have to change the way we think about board service.  For the most part, I find that we think of boards as a collection of people with skills and connections that we need to have in place to meet organizational needs.  We rarely think of the board member’s needs, we don’t think of the board as a team, and we rarely think of our board members as leaders and agents of change.  In fact, many of us are a bit frightened when our board members exhibit a desire to get “too involved”.  We certainly do not want board members getting overly involved in management; however, we do want board members who demonstrate leadership in their appropriate governance role.

So what do board leaders do?  They –

  • Encourage strategic thinking & dialogue at board meetings;
  • Take on leadership roles within the board;
  • Hold a deep understanding of the mission and goals, and provide a compass for the organization;
  • Cultivate productive relationships with the CEO, their board colleagues, appropriate staff, and the organization’s donors;
  • Communicate with influence because they are informed and invested enough to care;
  • Develop self through reading, education and development, which they share with their colleagues on the board.


Second, we have to change the way we think about board recruitment:  how we recruit, and what we recruit for.  I’d like to reframe “board recruitment” as “board cultivation”.  Just like donors, great board members have to be identified early, wooed, and tested for fit with our organizations.  It’s shocking how many people we will meet for the first time with the purpose of asking them to be on the board, without knowing their character, strengths, values or ability to lead.  Why not have them serve on a committee for a year before bringing them onto the board?  Also, consider adding these steps to your process:

  • Board Application:  Ask potential board members to fill out an application and submit a resume or CV.
  • Interview:  Sit down with potential board members, along with the CEO and at least one sitting board member.
  • Board Member Job Description:  Make sure the job description includes expectations regarding giving, fundraising, strategic conversation and participation.  In addition, considering adding to your job description that every board member is expected to eventually serve in leadership roles: as a committee chair or officer.
  • Orientation:  Formal board orientation is a must.  Orientation includes programmatic and organization-specific information, as well as standard board roles and responsibilities.  If you need a resource for Board Orientation, consider utilizing our monthly “Board Service Orientation” for all incoming board members.


Third, we have to change the way we think about board accountability.   High-performing board members need to be celebrated and treated like gold.  Low-performing board members need to be thanked for their service and released.  This is a key responsibility of the board itself and one that is largely ignored.  It also helps to have shared accountability tools, such as board performance reports, individual board evaluations, and an annual board assessment.  Create a culture of talking about these issues openly.

There is so much more to say on this incredibly important topic.  If you’d like to explore more about how to engage your board leaders, we have three upcoming opportunities for you:

1)     Partners in Leadership, a year-long comprehensive leadership development program for nonprofit CEO/EDs and Boards designed to bolster confidence, leadership and engagement.

Application deadline is April 30th.

2)     ENGAGE:  The Board that Worksa half-day workshop in which you prepare a plan to engage your board in meaningful and productive work.

May 22, 2015 8:00am-Noon

3)     Board Service Orientation, a monthly training available for any nonprofit board members, especially those new to board service.

May 18, 2015, 4:30-6:00pm

See you there!

Laura Headshot 2014


Laura Alexander, MA, CFRE

Principal Consultant