What Makes a Great Board Member?

Four fundamental rules of board service.

By Ilene Denton September 1, 2015 Published in the September 2015 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Thousands of the region’s residents volunteer to serve on nonprofit boards, pouring time, energy and resources into the task. Sarasota Orchestra CEO Joe McKenna says that with today’s redefined economy, new technology and profound demographic shifts, their work is “equally exhilarating and daunting.”


McKenna, who recently spoke about building a strong fund-raising board at the annual Fundraisers Forum sponsored by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and Association of Fundraising Professionals, offers these guidelines for being a good board member.


“A good board member has to have a deep and meaningful connection to the organization. If they have a commitment to the mission, the programs, the projects and the initiatives, that’s really No. 1.”


“Seek first to understand and then to be understood. Do your due diligence and understand the organization’s strategic and financial issues before forming an opinion. [Take the attitude that] ‘I’m going to take the time to learn and understand things before I ask my colleagues to understand me.’ It’s our responsibility to take new board members through an orientation process to get them up to speed.”


“Understand the difference between policy and strategic issues and so-called tactical implementation. Really good boards stay above the line: Do we have policies that further our mission; are we developing them responsibly with an eye toward sustainability? Below that line is staff-level work; it’s our job to create those programs that the board has vetted and deliver those results. It’s not about micromanaging, it’s about oversight. Never forget it’s all about moving the mission ahead.”


“Operate in an open, mutually respectful way with fellow board members, staff and patrons.  Don’t do board business in the hallway or the parking lot; those kinds of meetings do not further missions, they keep everything stuck in a circular loop.”


The Four Kinds of Board Members



  Weak OK Good Great
What they say “It’ll look good on my resume!” “What do I have to do?” “How may I help?” “Thanks for the opportunity!”
What they add Dead weight Basics Dedication Passion
What they take Valuable spot Instructions Role seriously Time to care
Whom they serve Themselves Their obligations The nonprofit The community
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