“Give, get or get off” was how Warren McFarlan, Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus once summed up the role of the nonprofit board member.  Like for-profit board members, the nonprofit board concerns itself with good governance but, while other similarities exist, a nonprofit board is a different kettle of fish. So, beyond interpersonal and functional skills, what should a nonprofit look for when selecting board members?

In the for-profit world, shareholders elect a board of directors to protect shareholder interests. Board members work collectively to ensure sound governance, the availability of financial resources and reasoned execution of corporate plans, programs and policies.

In contrast, a nonprofit board serves not at the pleasure of shareholders – there are none – but represents instead the executive team, major donors, those served by the organization and/or the community at large. Similar to the for-profit board, the nonprofit board assumes responsibility for governing the nonprofit organization but their focus is on the mission of the nonprofit rather than the wealth of the shareholders.

The nonprofit board of directors will typically spend more time pursuing social goals, raising community awareness and raising funds. Its functions include:

  • Reviewing and approving mission-oriented objectives and policies;
  • Selecting and appointing the organization’s chief executive;
  • Marshaling the financial and volunteer resources needed;
  • Safeguarding the integrity of the mission and credibility of the organization;
  • Directly assisting in the achievement of organization objectives.

Given this last charge, one can easily see the benefit of a much larger board of directors, nearly all of whom would be outside directors.

As with for-profit boards, bylaws set forth board-member election procedures, operating rules and meeting frequency.   But, unlike for-profit boards, directors often receive little or no compensation and engage because they believe in the nonprofit’s mission, a belief that encourages them to donate both time and treasure to the cause.  So what does does a nonprofit organization look for when selecting and recruiting unremunerated board members? The answer is twofold: (i) passion and (ii) a philanthropic mindset.

Those passionate about the nonprofit’s mission will more likely contribute both time and treasure, enthusiastically communicate the cause and enlist others in support of the organization. In other words, a passionate board member adopts not only a positive attitude about the organization but, more importantly, a positive behavior that enables fulfillment of the mission – he or she becomes mission critical. As the novelist, E. M. Forster opined, “One person with passion is better than 40 people merely interested.”

A philanthropic mindset presupposes not only the willingness to give but the ability as well. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “philanthropist” as one who makes an active effort to promote human welfare.  Perhaps William Penn’s words most effectively describe the mindset of the philanthropist: “I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer it, as I shall not pass this way again.”

Clearly, different degrees of passion and different stages of mindset development exist. Selecting nonprofit board members thus remains a function of judgment with little calculus. The following chart, however, attempts to provide a high-level framework for assessing the likely level of engagement of new board members.

Those men and women represented by the shaded area of the chart form the lifeblood of many nonprofits and, as a result, they receive countless requests for both their time and treasure. Because of their philanthropic interests, these individuals may find the nonprofit(s) that align with their philanthropic interests before the nonprofit(s) find them.   For nonprofits, they are the difference makers.

Those in the non-shaded area will prove helpful as well but will often require extra management time to excite, motivate or specifically engage. When recruiting, the nonprofit executive should take care to understand the interests of prospective board members and, potentially, the opportunity cost of engagement.

Nonprofit organizations will struggle to select the right board members, as will their for-profit counterparts; the search will remain continual. Jim Collins’ quote “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats” is oft quoted for a reason.