Nonprofit Boards – The Eighth Wonder of the World

We are all taught early in life that there exist only seven “Wonders of the World.” However, as development professionals working in North America, we are working on a daily basis with the Eighth Wonder of the World: the non-profit board member. Where else on this planet do so many successful men and women volunteer their time, talent and treasure to assist in insuring the very survival of an endless array of non-profit organizations?

Charities in the rest of the world operate differently than North American non-profit organizations. Foreign charities have a heavy dependence on government funding, forming the primary financial footing on which these organizations exist. Volunteerism is almost non-existent. As a result, very few private or corporate donations are sought. If a governing board exists at all, generally its members are governmental appointees.

Not true in North America. Our non-profit boards are all volunteer-based. The competition for these quality board members is at an all-time high. The main reason that you must seek the best possible board members is that the organization’s future lies in the hands of these highly dedicated, principled and (yes) opinionated individuals. Each non-profit must seek out the best possible candidates to fill their needs. How they go about doing this is quite an interesting subject.

As development professionals, we need to insert ourselves into the process that our respective non-profits employ to select these quality board members—the volunteers upon whom our success is so dependent. We need to insist on being included as ex-officio members of the board’s nominating committee. If this is not possible, at least we should be steady providers of names of potential board members to the committee. After all, our main purpose on earth is to ‘empower people to give time, talent and treasure’ to the best of their ability, and to help them enjoy themselves in the process. In many cases the development professional is closer to the best board prospects than anyone else in the organization, and surely we have the best understanding of the role they must play. The following are questions for you to give serious consideration as you help build and grow a stronger board:

  • Do you analyze your current board member’s occupations?
  • Do you then determine what expertise your organization needs?
  • Do you discuss inviting possible board candidates based on these needs?
  • Do you have an approved trustee job description?
  • Do you conduct preliminary interviews with each prospective board member?
  • Following these interviews, do you agree on what role this person is to fill?
  • Is there an agreed upon ‘required’ giving level for board members?
  • Has this agreed upon giving level been discussed with the board prospect?
  • Do you have a board development plan in place to insure regular communication and steady involvement of all board members?
  • Have you established a formal way to evaluate board members annually?
  • Does this evaluation process include adequate opportunity for board member input?
  • Is the information gleaned in this process used as a basis for annual planning retreats?

The issues that will likely determine our success as fundraisers are the ones dealing with appropriate giving levels, and whether there is a formal evaluation process in place. I utilize the following chart to track both trustee involvement and their giving history. Here’s how it works:

This chart is entitled Contribution/Involvement Ratio, to depict visually where we need board members to be in these regards. The chart is quite simple in design, but very effective when used. Take a piece of paper and draw a vertical line along the left side and a horizontal line across the bottom. On the vertical axis write the organization’s various giving levels. Along the horizontal axis, starting on the left side put short marks indicating the prospect’s years of involvement (0, 1, 2, 3, etc). The number zero should be put in the bottom left hand corner. Draw a diagonal line from the zero to the top right side corner. Finally, put the board member’s name at the top of the page and you are ready to use the chart.

Everyone starts at zero in the bottom left hand corner. They are not involved and have not contributed anything. Thereafter, place a dot above the year of involvement at the intersection of their giving level. Draw a line to connect the dots. Hopefully your board members will see the need to always make sure their ‘dots’ are above the diagonal line, not below. An important thing to remember is this: as they are given more responsibility within the organization (chair a committee, serve on the executive committee, or be an officer), you will see their contributions rise proportionally.

Using this chart and making sure that all the above questions have a ‘yes’ answer, will be helpful in your dealings with non-profit boards. They certainly have worked for me for the last thirty years and I feel confident they will work for you, too. Non-profit boards are the eighth wonder of the world for a reason. As development professionals we are entrusted with making sure they remain as such. How we manage the precious resources of a person’s time, talent and treasure will determine the level of success we achieve.

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