The Power of a Simple Piece of Paper

by Natasha Dresner, Mentor, JCamp 180

Reprinted with permission of The Berkshire Eagle

Are you familiar with the Golem story? No, not the one from the Lord of The Rings. I'm talking about a mystical Jewish creature -- a man made of clay -- that was created through a complicated Kabbalistic ritual to protect the Jewish people from destruction.

This ritual required four elements: fire, water, air and earth. To bring the Golem to life, a piece of parchment had to be put in its mouth with the true name of God -- very powerful and forbidden to utter -- written on it.

In the nonprofit world, the board is one of the main powers protecting the organization from destruction. And, while the ritual of acquiring board members isn't nearly as complicated as the Golem story, to acquire the right ones I suggest using another very powerful piece of "parchment" -- the ideal board member profile (you don't have to put it in anyone's mouth).

To create one, your executive director or CEO, ideally with your governance committee, should first profile the existing board members quantitatively and qualitatively. How many board members do you have? Are they all equally engaged? What is their contribution, financial and otherwise, to the organization? Historically, what is their passion and engagement trajectory? And, so on.

I recommend using a profiling template that I'm happy to share. It's easy to personalize, and it allows you to capture all of the answers in one place. As a result, you quickly identify the missing pieces, and based on them create your own ideal board member profile.

As an aside, you can also use the profiling results for your individual board member evaluations since the document provides a great apples-to-apples way to compare your members' performance.

The reason you need to ask what your ideal board member looks like annually has to do with the individual strategic goals and priorities of your organization, which change every year. Let's say you're embarking on a capital campaign next year. To be successful, that means expanding your board both in numbers to do the work, and in relevant qualities such as philanthropic capacity and connections, fundraising experience and architectural expertise, among others. It can also easily mean other things based on the unique realities of your particular organization.

While typically most criteria in an ideal board member profile remain the same, a few do change year-after-year, and those few can make a huge difference in the success of the organization. So, consider the following criteria when you think about what your ideal board member should look like:

  • Be passionate for your mission: See my June 15 column in The Berkshire Eagle for details.
  • Have nonprofit governance experience: Where did board members serve before? Don't hesitate to call the organizations and ask for references.
  • Provide leadership and personal integrity: Will this person be a good representative of the organization? Is their leadership style consensus building or my-way-or-the-highway? What leadership skills do they have? Are they the patient type or a hothead? Is there any personal "baggage" that you should be aware of like litigation, health issues, or tragic events so you can be both sensitive and protective of the organization. How do they take their coffee? Just kidding on the last one.
  • Contributions to the board's diversity: Each organization needs to define this term. Is it just age, race and geography? Or should perspective, experience, expertise, time, talent, background, financial capacity, culture, sexual orientation, religious affiliation and so on be taken into consideration? Make sure your constituency is properly represented on the board, but keep it well balanced and be smart about it. Just because you operate a homeless shelter, doesn't mean you should have a homeless person on your board. You should consider that option if that person meets your ideal board member profile, but not just for the sake of representing that constituency. Consider diversity of learning and leadership styles, too. In other words, you need detail-oriented people as well as strategic thinkers.
  • Capacity: Here is another term that requires further definition. Typically, when we hear that our board member should have capacity, what is the first thing that pops into our heads? Money. And while the philanthropic capacity is important, there are other things that you need to consider when talking about your ideal board member's capacity, items like time, energy, expertise, reputation, connections and access. Will your organization be one of the prospective member's top three priorities, philosophically and otherwise, if they join the board? Remember, your board's commitment sets the bar and models the behavior for others.
  • Expertise: To be a healthy, successful organization, your board needs to have access to legal and financial expertise. Bringing expertise in the field that a particular nonprofit is involved in could be very helpful, too. The rest of the expertise you are looking for should be based on your strategic goals. What do you need if you want to start an alumni association, build an endowment, engage in a strategic planning process, or improve your outreach?
  • Pass the glass slipper test: The person has to be a good fit for the organizational culture and the dynamic of the board. Now go ahead, profile your existing board, create your own ideal board member profile and reap the multiple benefits. No more talk of needing more or new board members because now you know exactly how many you need and what they look like. You can share this information with anyone helping you in identifying those board members, and your profile will make it much easier to think of real people matching it.

There'll be no more asking people to join the board just because you have openings. Now you have a real individual strategy and reasons why each person you approach is your ideal candidate. People like feeling authentically valued, and knowing that you've done your homework, and that they're dealing with a professionally run organization. They are more likely to say yes if they recognize those things.

I hope you'll find this piece of "parchment" powerful enough to animate or reanimate your organization. There's really nothing mystical about it.