A board is only as effective as its individual membersA board of directors or trustees that provides strong oversight and effective strategic counsel is a powerful asset for any nonprofit. Unfortunately, many boards fall short of this mark.
Numerous factors contribute to an ineffective board, but one is of fundamental importance — board members who lack the right background, skills and experience. It's a problem that often arises when leaders and current board members fill openings with like-minded friends, family members and associates instead of seeking the most qualified candidates for any given slot.
While this pattern may be understandable, it sets the stage for conformity and minimizes the very traits a board needs to do — and be — its best:
- The ability to provide a diverse array of fresh and useful perspectives
- The courage to offer honest feedback and constructive criticism
- The willingness to take strong positions or appropriate risks to benefit the organization long-term
Use board composition to reflect organizational priorities
Ideally, the qualities board members bring to the table should align with your organization's strategic priorities and the diversity of your stakeholders. For example, if your organization is dedicated to helping people who have a certain disease, your ideal board might include individuals with backgrounds in medicine, legislation, finance, nonprofit fundraising, consumer behavior and marketing, as well as people or family members affected by the disease. Cultural, ethnic and gender diversity are also key.
One way to think about filling board seats is to approach it the way you would a key hire. Seek people of diverse backgrounds with relevant, substantive experience — the kind that will enable them to do the job well, make meaningful contributions and move your organization forward.
How do you ensure that your board has the right mix of skills and backgrounds to provide sound governance? Start by taking an objective look at your organization. Things to consider include:
- Your organization's mission and strategic priorities
- The role and mission of the board as a whole
- The skills and expertise required of individual board members
- Qualities and backgrounds of current board members
- Potential gaps in knowledge or cultural or racial diversity
- Ways to recruit and assess new board members to fill those gaps
For long-established boards or those that tend to be disengaged, this undertaking may seem daunting or even threatening. But building an effective board requires honest evaluations, ongoing accountability and a commitment to doing what's best for the organization at every turn.
Of course, building a board rich in diverse skills, experience and background isn't a one-time activity. Rather, it's a process of continual self-assessment and improvement. It calls for boards to regularly take a long, hard look at their purpose, the skills and attributes of each member, and whether those skills and attributes — both individual and collective — are serving the organization in meaningful ways. As the organization develops and grows, and perhaps takes on new areas of work, you might need new types of expertise on your board.
Creating a shift in board culture and behavior
Difficult though it may be, addressing diversity and other underlying issues within the board will lead to:
- Less groupthink
- A broader array of ideas and debates about what's best for the organization
- More thorough, thoughtful decision-making
- More powerful collective capabilities
It all sets the stage for a better, stronger board — one that performs at full potential and provides long-term value.
Harvard Business Review: A more effective board of directors by Ana Dutra (2012)
Harvard Business Review: Where boards fall short by Dominic Barton and Mark Wiseman (2015)
Harvard Business Review: Building better boards by David A. Nadler (2004)
Forbes: Why having diversity on your board matters by H.O. Maycotte (2015)
SpencerStuart: Building a balanced board by Julie Hembrock Daum (2015)