Seven Essential Characteristics of Great Nonprofit Board Members

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A nonprofit charity’s ability to impact the world rests partially on the competence of its board members. Without a board of skilled, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic board members, nonprofits may struggle to deliver on their mission and positively impact those they aim to serve. 

And so, a question arises: How do you recruit great board members? This topic is a matter of great importance and ongoing dialogue within the nonprofit community. 

This guide is an excellent entry point for those beginning the recruiting process, especially if you are at all unsure of where to start. It should help you identify and break down seven essential qualities of great nonprofit board members so you know which traits to look for. You will also learn to tell if someone possesses these crucial traits, as knowing the characteristics is only half of the battle.

However, this is also an excellent resource for those charity executives who can’t quite gauge why their board isn’t meeting their needs. You can use this to look at the individual members and figure out what you need from each of them.

(Note: Some of these characteristics are referenced in 8 Characteristics of An Outstanding Board Member as well as Finding the Right Board Members for your Nonprofit. However, this article seeks to push both topics further by analyzing what these qualities look like and assessing how you might tell if someone possesses these qualities.)

Here are seven characteristics of great nonprofit board members.

1. Passion for the Cause

A passion for the nonprofit’s cause is the first sign that someone could be a great board member of a nonprofit organization. Someone enthusiastic about the cause will be much more excited about your nonprofit’s initiatives. In general, enthusiastic board members will help you stay the course as they maintain their commitment to your nonprofit long-term.

Passion also increases the likelihood that someone will go beyond their regular duties to help your organization achieve its goals. For example, someone involved in supporting individuals who are homeless will have developed a passion for that community through their engagements. A person with experience participating in homelessness awareness walks or taking steps to lobby city legislators on behalf of those who are currently unhoused means this member comes to the board with hands-on experience with your cause.

Remember that you cannot, in most cases, teach passion. Board members can develop other skills over time, but people typically either have or do not have a passion for a particular cause. Since this is more caught than taught, it’s a top priority for the member to possess this characteristic already.

How can you tell if someone is enthusiastic about the cause?

A candidate might express enthusiasm for a particular cause, but you should look at their actions to determine whether they have acted on their words. What have they done in the past to support those who help your organization? Can community members vouch for their efforts and verify that they care about your nonprofit’s cause? 

Consider the candidate’s knowledge about the cause, too. Are they aware of the severity of the issues affecting a particular community? Do they have well-thought-out ideas on how to address these issues? With knowledge and experience comes valuable wisdom for decision-making and governance.

On the other hand, this passion-based experience and knowledge help the board member, too. In discussions with executives, for example, the passionate board member can draw from their experience and knowledge about the topic instead of unproven ideas. 

2. Strong Commitment to Service

Another essential aspect of being a great board member is a commitment to service. The best board members genuinely want to help others. They also understand the importance of serving and giving back to their communities.

Many of the people who serve on the board of a nonprofit are unpaid volunteers. Suppose these individuals are not genuinely committed to service to the organization’s cause. In that case, they may be less likely to stick with the nonprofit through their whole term on the board and contribute to the organization’s long-term efforts. Seeking those with a track record for service is far more important than finding those who have simply donated to the organization.

How can you tell if someone is committed to service?

When searching for the right board members, see if they check the following boxes:

  • Through past engagements, they show that they believe in the value of service.
  • They are willing to volunteer their time and have a history of doing so. Their service on a board committee should draw on their expertise.
  • They understand the demands of being a board member as well as the time and effort it takes to run a nonprofit organization. This understanding could result from their experience on a similar board.
  • They put the interests of those your organization serves over their own. They might have a track record of making sacrifices with their time and money, for example.  

If you notice at least some of the qualities listed above in a candidate for your nonprofit’s board, there is a good chance they share your commitment to service. As previously mentioned, they are also likely to share a passion for the cause your organization supports, as these qualities tend to go hand in hand. 

3. Financial Contributions 

Perhaps more tangibly, great board members also have to understand that it takes money both to keep a nonprofit organization running and to provide tangible assistance to those in need. It is not enough for a board member to give time to a nonprofit organization. It would also show commitment to the cause when evidencing a willingness to contribute time, talent, or funds to the organization they serve.

All nonprofits require donations to stay afloat, and it is hard to convince others to donate to your nonprofit’s cause if your board members are not also contributing. Additionally, if board members do not make personal donations, the public might view this as a sign that the nonprofit’s board does not practice what it preaches.

Some boards agree to take on a mutual yearly fundraising goal and work together to gather donations or contribute themselves to meet this goal if they are able. Showihe effort and willingness to contribute to the financial needs of the organization can help the board members participate in the promotion of the programs and build new donor relationships for the organization.

How can you make sure someone will regularly donate?

When meeting with potential new board members, executive directors, and current members should clarify that they expect all members to commit to a “give or get” policy, such as contributing to a total board giving or funding acquisition goal. Making board donation policies clear right from the start helps to prevent confusion. It also ensures that everyone knows what is required of them before they join the board, so they can plan their finances accordingly. 

4. New Ideas

The best board members are not content with the status quo because they want to see the organization grow its impact. As a result, they are actively engaged in improving the nonprofit. One way to show this engagement is through a willingness to contribute innovative ideas and creative solutions to problems serviced by the organization. It would be helpful though to remind candidates that ideas from board members are not mandatory for implementation.

Look for new board members who are enthusiastic and willing to share their ideas and suggestions. They should also be innovative and able to address issues from new angles, having a track record in nonprofit, governmental, or corporate sectors.

How can you tell if someone will contribute new ideas to your organization?

If someone is innovative and engaged in your nonprofit’s cause, you might notice some of these qualities during evaluation:

  • Curiosity—Innovative people ask questions and show curiosity, not judgment. They do not accept things at face value or make snap decisions.
  • Open-mindedness—Innovative people have open minds. They do not think they have all the answers and are eager to hear what others say.
  • Enthusiasm—An innovative board member will be eager to share their ideas with you and others.

When you meet with potential board members, consider whether they display these characteristics. These signify that they may bring innovative ideas to your nonprofit and help you evolve and grow.

5. Willingness to Learn and Take Stewardship

Although a basic understanding of (and enthusiasm for) the cause is important, a willingness to learn is essential for nonprofit board members as well because these situations are often dynamic. 

Imagine a nonprofit striving to help those experiencing homelessness find jobs. If the board members do not keep up with the latest research on homelessness, they will not understand the factors contributing to it. Further, they might not understand an executive’s reasoning behind a programming change. Essentially, the executive will have to spend valuable time educating the board, impeding their ability to make meaningful change despite good intentions.

In addition to being willing to learn, great nonprofit board members are fine taking stewardship and acting on what they have learned. Taking the information gathered, they use it to work with the executive and their team to create and implement initiatives that benefit the community.

A board member who takes stewardship will also care more about the long-term impact of the nonprofit than they do about their egos. It might take years — beyond the person’s term as a board member — before a nonprofit’s initiative creates meaningful change. However, this should not stop a good steward from implementing ideas, and doing what they can to make them effective.

How can you tell if someone is committed to learning and stewardship?

See if they check the following boxes:

  • They keep up with the latest developments in their sector.
  • They work to implement what they learn.
  • They consider (and care about) the long-term impact of their ideas.
  • They leave their egos at the door and be willing to learn from others. 

6. Connection to the Community Network

Let’s look at an example of how these community connections might manifest. Suppose a candidate knows—and is on good terms—with high-ranking members of the community, such as local politicians, others who work with those your organization wants to serve, or those who can make large donations. These community connections can play a signification role in effective fundraising, awareness, and charity events (among other things), so this candidate might be able to provide a lot of value for your nonprofit in this area.

Of course, these connections should not be the only things that matter when recruiting new members. Instead, view community connections as having the potential to help your nonprofit grow and positively impact those you are trying to serve.

How can you tell if someone is connected to the community?

When conducting an executive search for new board members, consider each candidate’s connection to their community, and ask them to describe their involvement. Again, you should be looking for community connections and a grassroots understanding of the community being served.  This local connection of board members will help your nonprofit better relate to local needs and positively affect the communities it serves.

At a community housing cooperative, for example, this might look like a candidate who also volunteers with their local business improvement area association or condo corporation. This local and community-based experience could benefit the organization and bring in additional relationships for your nonprofit. 

7. Effective Conflict Resolution 

Finally, good conflict resolution skills make someone a promising candidate for your nonprofit’s board position. After all, conflicts can and will arise in any group setting, including in nonprofit board meetings.

Keep in mind that there are different types of conflict, including types of conflict of interest. However, conflict is not always inherently bad. When handled well, it can generate new ideas for managing specific issues. 

On the other hand, if board members do not have good conflict resolution skills, arguments and disagreements can escalate. Too much escalation can hinder your board’s ability to make good decisions and effectively serve those in need.

How can you tell if someone possesses good conflict-resolution skills?

It is not always easy to tell how someone manages conflict — after all, they are unlikely to get into an argument with you while interviewing for a position on your nonprofit’s board.

However, those who are good at resolving conflicts typically have practical communication skills, such as the following:

  • They listen actively, including the appropriate use of nonverbal language (leaning in, nodding, etc.).
  • They speak clearly and concisely.
  • They can control their emotions.
  • They respectfully disagree with others. 

When meeting with a potential member, note whether they exhibit these characteristics of effective communication. If they do, they might also be able to manage conflict and settle disputes more efficiently.

A Joint Effort

Of course, an effective and impactful nonprofit organization requires modeled leadership from both its board members and its executive director. If organizations are led and governed by those who have been “walking the talk,” then staff, partners, and clients are more likely to follow their example. 

Individually, these attributes are good, but the best board members (and leaders) embody all or most of these. For the board, each person is only one spoke of the wheel, so it might be good to analyze your board members to see which of these skills they might further develop as well.

At the end of the day, executive directors must know which qualities to look for in applicants. This will make vetting candidates easier, enabling executive leadership to make the best decisions for the organization and those it serves.

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Since 1997 David Hutchinson, the president of Cause Leadership, a nonprofit executive search firm, has successfully placed senior-level candidates with a broad spectrum of organizations in the charitable sector. He is also greatly interested in helping charitable organizations diversify, become younger in their leadership, and better represent their clients.  Jim Foster is the Chief Operating Officer of Cause Leadership

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