25 things awesome board members do


beyond-1157000_960_720Hi everyone. A colleague asked me to write about what board members can do to be helpful to staff. Nonprofit board members are critical to the success of organizations. We rely on y’all for so many important things and are deeply grateful for all the time, skills, connections, and resources you give, especially considering that the majority of board members are volunteers.

However, boards are also the direct cause of 39% of brain aneurysms in the sector, according to statistics that I made up. So I asked the NWB Facebook community to help develop a list of what awesome board members do. This is not a list of board roles and responsibilities, which you can google, or find at BoardSource, but actual, down-to-earth, sometimes seemingly minor stuff. One colleague writes this of one of her board members:

When your fundraiser is on the same night as an ice storm, he personally salts the sidewalks and parking lot. Then when all the salt runs out he goes to the gas station down the road and buys more salt to finish the job. He also demands car keys from me and coworker at the end of the night to defrost and scrape our car windows. And somehow in the midst of all that he also pays several hundreds of dollars on an auction item and poses for tons of pictures with the kids. #oneofthebest

OK, that board member is amazing and deserves, like, the biggest plaque ever, but I don’t think any of us are asking any of you board members to go that far. If you can do even a few of the things below on this list, we’ll all be eternally grateful and will preserve your names forever in the indices of nonprofit history.

25 things that awesome board members do, in no particular order

  1. Promptly respond to emails. Oh please, oh please respond quickly to emails and phone calls. Awesome board members realize that sometimes we legally cannot move forward on stuff until there’s a board decision or an officer’s signature. They help us do our jobs by being accessible. Chasing down board members is one of the biggest frustrations we staff face, next to coworkers who leave dishes in the sink for days.
  2. Learn staff’s names and roles. Says one colleague, “Had a board member that would tell me how to do my job AND call me Heather! At least use the right name if you are going to condescend to me.” If the organization is not huge, learning staff’s names and a little about their work and, when appropriate, personal lives will help improve morale and board-staff relationship.
  3. Are willing to work with “lower-level” staff. The ED/CEO is great, but some projects need collaboration between board members and non-ED/CEO staff. Awesome board members are OK with talking to the lowly front-line staff and even the unwashed interns.
  4. Love and believe in the organization. Awesome board members truly believe in the organization’s mission, vision, and values. They love the organization, they want to marry it, and it shows.
  5. Know the organization’s work. Awesome board members learn the organization’s mission and programs and are able to speak with confidence about it all. If they are not sure about the org’s mission and how to clearly talk about it, they get help and training from staff.
  6. Passionately talk about the organization. They talk about it to everyone they know: Family members, neighbors, strangers on the bus, DJs at a club, travel agents, mixed martial artists, cobblers, etc. Awesome board members infect people with excitement about the organization’s work.
  7. Separate their personal and professional lives from the org’s work when needed. A colleague told me that a board member refused to vote to give staff raises because “I don’t get paid that well, so why should other people?” Awesome board members will realize how effed up and immature that is.
  8. Show appreciation for the work of the staff. It’s easy to point out all the stuff that can be improved. Awesome board members also take time to point out the things that are going well and show appreciation for the team members who make stuff happen.
  9. Look out for staff’s well-being. An ED friend of mine had a crappy chair that poked into her back. Trying to save money for her org, she refused to buy a new chair. Her board president had to basically mandate her to get a new one. Awesome board members look out for their CEO/ED’s well-being and sometimes use their influence to facilitate nice things for staff that the staff wouldn’t do for themselves. This will help create an org culture where team members look out for one another.
  10. Fill their table at the gala. Galas are stressful enough. Awesome board members know that and work to fill their tables early. The Great Unicorn of Equity and Social Justice blesses all board members who fill their tables with minimum cajoling, haranguing, threats, and bribes.
  11. Do the crap they say they are going to do. Show up at an event? Contact a potential sponsor? Review the bylaws? Whittle small animals out of blocks of soap as prizes for the raffle? Awesome board members, and awesome people in general, do exactly what they say they will do.
  12. Approaches staff as teammates, not subordinates. Awesome board members see themselves as equal partners with staff, not bosses or supervisors. They understand their role is to guide and support, not find faults, blame, and punish.
  13. Stay in their lane and focus on the big important stuff. Awesome board members understand the differences between their roles and the roles of the staff, and they stick to their roles. Unless the board is a working board, they do their board stuff and avoid micromanaging staff on operations and programs. They use their brain and energy on strategies and policies, not on ridiculous small things. They do not care why the toilet paper line item increased from $15 this month to $22, or argue with staff about what font to use on promotional materials.
  14. Understand that they only see a small part of the organization. Awesome board members know that the work is complicated and that they only see a very small fraction of it. They are curious, asks for information without being pushy, and treat staff as professionals who have more knowledge and experience than they do regarding the organization’s work.
  15. Respect that the board speaks as one voice. Awesome board members know that as individual board members, they cannot make staff to do anything, and that the board must act as one entity to make decisions, kind of like The Borg on Star Trek, but smaller and hopefully with better snacks.
  16. Recognize when they are board members, and when they are just regular volunteers. Sometimes board members volunteer for stuff outside their board role. Awesome board members recognize those times when they are just a normal volunteer, which means they follow the directions of staff just like any other volunteers, and don’t use the board member card to demand special privileges.
  17. Make a personally significant financial contribution without constantly being asked or reminded. Awesome board members know that many funders and donors still look for 100% board financial contribution, so they provide an annual gift happily and speedily.
  18. Attend board meetings on time and read board packets ahead of time. Awesome board members appreciate how important quorum is to each board meeting, and how anxious staff are if quorum is not met. They show up on time and communicate when they cannot attend meetings or if they will be late. They also know that it takes a lot of time to prepare those packets, so they at least skim through them and are prepared to ask relevant, thoughtful questions at meetings.
  19. Are cognizant of staff dynamics and the board’s role in resolving conflicts. There are numerous horror stories of disgruntled team members who skip steps in the grievance process and go directly to the board. Sometimes complaints are legitimate, sometimes they are not. Awesome board members are not quick to jump to conclusions, but are thoughtful and deliberate in gathering information and making decisions.
  20. Ask tough questions, but with the lens of helping, not blaming and criticizing. Awesome board members are not afraid to point out concerns and lead difficult but important conversations. But they are constructive and always have the organization’s success in mind.
  21. Step up during emergencies or critical transition periods. Says one colleague of a board member, “She tells the management team she has faith in them to lead during a CEO transition, then releases them to do so, while only an email or phone call away and always has time when the phone call comes, and usually replies to emails with a prompt phone calls, all while serving on the CEO search committee and logging an extra 50+ board service hours because of that! She’s amazing, as is our board!”
  22. Pitch in on their ideas. Few things frustrate us staff more than board members suggesting new projects for staff to tackle. Let’s have a golf tournament! Let’s launch a crowd-funding campaign! Let’s put on a one-act play! Awesome board members know that staff have plenty of crap to do, and that if they are going to mandate more crap for us to do, they will help out to make that crap happen.
  23. Learn new skills. From financial management to bylaws to strategic planning to effective meeting facilitation, as well as program-specific knowledge, awesome board members take time to acquire knowledge and learn new skills. If they are not experienced in the nonprofit sector, they do not assume that they know how to run nonprofits. They do not bizsplain and look down on staff.
  24. Engage their networks. Awesome board members will tap their networks to provide the organization with resources, whether it is financial or in the form of professional advice or connections that may help the organization.
  25. Ensure all the organization’s policies and practices align with its values. Awesome board members will, for example, fight for staff’s fair wages, equitable health insurance, and a reasonable family leave policy to align with the value of Equity.

There are others, but I think 25 is a nice number, so I’ll stop here. (Wait, 26, Awesome board members believe in #OxfordCommaForever). Please add your thoughts in the comment section. I want to reiterate that we staff are appreciative of board members for all you give to nonprofits. Many of us staff are also board members of other organizations, so we are familiar with both ends of the wombat (it’s a new expression I’m hoping will catch on). If we can all review this list once a while, check to see how we are doing on these items, and resolve to be better board members, our organizations will be stronger, our staff happier, our programs better, and the Great Unicorn of Equity and Social Justice will bless us all.

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  • Daniel Jones

    Cobblers? 😀

  • Vivian

    I love reading your posts/blogs – always dead on with humor!

  • Mehitabel

    I’m reminded of Jane Austen: “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”

    Not that this is an unreasonable or unrealistic list — it’s not, by any means. It should be required reading for anyone who aspires to, or already sits on, a nonprofit board.

  • Pete Noll

    Unwashed interns, love it! I also am appreciative of well-designed and meaningful ED evaluations.

  • John Newman

    Forever grateful to the board member who says, “The staff wouldn’t bring this proposal to us if they hadn’t thought through the details. We have to trust them.”

  • Carol Clarke

    Our Board does not appreciate me snorfing my Monday mid-morning snacks onto my keyboard in sudden uncontrollable guffaws in response to your ballsy newsletter. The keyboard is 115 years old, but they tell me I should be able to use it for another 13 more years if I make nourishment and extraneous reading less of a priority.

    • Lisa Daleiden-Brugman

      I’m right there with you, Carol. My co-workers often wonder what is so gosh-darn funny about excel sheets and constant contact.

  • verucaamish

    As someone who worked in membership-based advocacy organizations, I’ve really appreciated board members who served as a “brain trust” for my policy advocacy work. I was always happy when I could run things by a board member to see how it would play out. For example, do you or your partner organizations get funding from XYZ government agency and should we advocate for greater funding for that agency? Can you give me examples of how you used funding from that program? I was a VERY effective advocate and actually got some concrete piece of legislation passed because of the feedback from my board.

  • Emily Anthony

    Great article, Vu! By coincidence, this month Julie Edsforth and I have a “Real Life Board Job Description” on our blog Northwest Nonprofit Notes, which is very much on the same wavelength as your article and may be useful for sharing with new board members who want to do a good job. Check it out http://nonprofitnotes.com/board-job-description

  • S NV Nonprofit Info Ctr

    Unfortunately, both boards I have served on (and have resigned from) have been the total opposite. I suspect that any list of *those* characteristics would run to the hundreds, if not thousands, of items.

    It’s nice to know, however, that there ARE great boards out there.

  • Mary Cahalane

    I’ve been lucky to have known a number of board members who fit this profile exactly over the years. I adore them and still do, years after I left the organization(s) I worked with. They’re role models, smart, ready to help – and so supportive. They make organizations shine and I truly love them!

  • Lisa Joyce

    Loved it all, except the part about the Oxford comma. 🙂

  • Vu Le – I love this piece! I just shared link to it on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn & Twitter, with this intro: “Witty spot-on insights re leadership qualities for all types of organizations.”


    I’d love to add “Offer mentorship to the unpaid interns” to this. I’m studying the impact of unpaid internships on working culture in the arts, and the interns’ biggest complaint in the study – as well as the thing most likely to have helped their career – is real mentorship. Staff often feel too overwhelmed by the daily hustle to implement a real mentorship plan, but there are so many easy ways the board can offer interns some measurable career advancement. Let ’em shadow you at the board meetings and fundraiser meetings! Look over their grant applications and offer advice! Introduce them to your contacts! They’re taking time off from their paid survival job to help out at your org. It’s the least you can do.
    (Thank you for your amazing writing, Vu. Here’s the study if you’re curious: http://www.cultureculture.ca)

  • Terrific piece Vu. What a wonderful article to share with E.D.s and Board members. I’d send it to one I loved, with a “Thank you for taking the lead in being awesome;” then hope s/he would share with the rest!

  • Debra Porta

    This list is so spot on. I am advising a young (in terms of membership) board for a small-ish organization, and pretty much every single thing on this list will resonate as a lesson in need of learning for them. Thank you!