Here’s What Board Members Must Do
From the archives of Jerold Panas, 2012
From time to time, I’m asked at a board meeting what I consider to be the major criteria of a trustee. There are those who wish they hadn’t asked! As a consultant, I’ve discovered that board members are allowed to ask questions but are not always obliged to listen!
1. An effective board member must understand the institution, its history, its present program, and its outreach. A trustee must be dedicated to the mission and measure everything the organization does about its philosophy of operation.
Understanding the purpose of the organization means that the board member knows the distinctiveness of the mission, what sets you apart. They realize you cannot market if you don’t have a clear and focused vision. This means being aware of those with a similar service.
2. A board member must be faithful about attending board and committee meetings – and participate fully, openly, and with candor. I consider 70 percent attendance to be a minimum level. Anything below that is unacceptable. (Several foundations now won’t consider a grant if your attendance is less than 70 percent.)
3. In today’s world, there is little tolerance for delay, dawdling, and diddling. This means expediting the decision-making process; the vagaries of the marketplace force a strategic sensitivity to time. Decisions need to be driven by the 2-Ms: Market and Mission—backed up by data. Off-the-cuff determinations will not suffice. It often requires market research, and cost analysis—penetrating and effective analysis. In today’s world, putting off a decision is making a decision—and you may not like the outcome.
4. A board member must be a roaring advocate. At every opportunity possible, a director speaks with enthusiasm and an unquestionable ardor about the organization.
5. He or she brings to bear all the influence possible to persuade others to act in a positive way on behalf of the organization.
6. Alchemy means the transmutation of base metal into gold. Robertson Davies, the great Canadian author, says what alchemy means is something that has attained such excellence, such nearness to perfection, that it “offers a glory, and the expansion of life and understanding, to those who have been brought in contact with it.” That’s what board members are—the alchemists.
7. Set new ideas in motion. That’s what will thrust your organization forward. Board members need to be challenged to embrace new ideas as conditions change and need to be changed. If trustees are properly prepared, and the situation is properly interpreted, they will move faster than you ever thought possible.
They need to continually rethink the institution’s mission and business. Your competitors already are. They need the gift of prophecy. They understand that what is good enough today is unacceptable tomorrow.
8. A trustee settles for nothing less than the best. He or she understands that the difference between big and great … is very small. A trustee makes certain that all activities and offerings of the institution are of the highest quality possible. And a board member understands that when you refuse to accept anything but the very best, you most often get the best.
9. A board member brings his or her business acumen into the boardroom and is intrepid about making tough decisions. They ask the what and why questions—not the how questions.
10. They volunteer, that’s what good trustees do. Some assignments come up, some difficult and fairly time-consuming. A dedicated board member takes them on. I tell them that at first, they may shock fellow trustees with their willingness. But after a short while, that kind of spirit catches on. It is contagious. Success happens only with dedication and hard work.
11. Many don’t like this next part. I tell them what some don’t like to hear. But it’s okay—they expected me to say it. And I remind them that they asked me. They must give sacrificially. That means they give to the very best of their ability. They stretch. And they help get gifts from others—friends, business associates, neighbors. I tell them that at first, these friends and colleagues will be so infectious they will find the cause irresistible.
12. Board members provide accord and acclaim for the good work of the staff. A board has the responsibility to expect the very best performance possible from the staff. The truth is, not every organization has a staff that comes up to this high expectation. When it does, the board must applaud and give support. And I tell them: “If you have an effective staff, to recognize and hold them—try choking them with gold!”
Board members will not disappoint you, not if they understand and experience the joy of being head-over-heels involved in your work. It is one of the glorious celebrations of this life that no one can help another without helping him or herself.
Having the right board members will, in the end, help your institution resonate with service and overflow with activities. The proper board sustains your mission and ensures your future.
Your board members just need to be reminded that their major responsibility is to make certain that your organization has the proper funding. Money makes it happen.