For Want of a Title a Great Board Member Was Lost

Okay, so I don’t usually wax poetic but lately a very old children’s rhyme has come to mind when I think about nonprofit boards and missed opportunities. Remember this one?

Board titlesFor want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

We all know something small that’s misplaced or overlooked can easily trigger something bigger. How does this connect to board service? Pretty directly when what’s misplaced are priorities and a realistic assessment of the most important qualities in a board member.

Too Many Titles

Here’s an anecdote I heard recently that makes the point. At a board meeting the members all had name cards and each name included a title – Esq., CPA, MD, PhD. One member’s credential was EE. Which stands for? Nothing. She made it up after observing that she alone had no title. No one asked what it stood for, but it gave her the air of respect among the group that she felt she needed.

Why would she feel that way? We know the answer. On far too many boards, titles abound. On far too many boards, fitting a profile has an outsized influence on how members are chosen. We need a lawyer, an accountant, someone with an advanced degree.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying these professionals can’t make great board members. They can and do. But a title should not be a prerequisite for board service. It does not guarantee a great board member. Giving too much weight to certain titles and profiles can create expectations that can be dangerous for an organization: that certain individuals automatically know more about nonprofit governance and naturally deserve a stronger voice than others. It’s not hard to see the slippery slope that a nonprofit can descend when too many board members over too much time offer the “right” credentials but not necessarily the best qualities to govern well.

What Matters in Board Members

As discussed in my July Dashboard it’s the season for intimate gatherings with potential donors who are passionate about the cause your nonprofit represents. That passion is also among the most important qualities you want in board members. It’s the cause, after all, that you serve.

So passion matters. So does openness. So does willingness to cooperate and collaborate. So does recognizing that board service, particularly effective governance, requires specialized skills and knowledge. And that agreeing to learn – or be refreshed on – those skills through board education is part of agreeing to serve.

The way to compose the best board is by getting to know would-be members as people, not by profession. Expand your measure of what matters in a board member and you’ll ensure that individuals with the capacity to be great are not overlooked.

Looking for guidance in building a high functioning board with emphasis on governance skills and knowledge? Let’s talk.