Help! Our nonprofit needs a better board of directors
Posted on: August 21, 2018 at 9:29 am

By Joyce Penland, CFRE

In the leather portfolio I carry with me to work is a small sheet of paper with four words on it. I’m not certain who originally said them, but I often heard them from perhaps the most gifted person I’ve ever seen work with a board of trustees, former Trinity University President Ron Calgaard.  He said that effective, successful boards of directors must possess the four characteristics on that piece of paper.  He called them “The Four W’s” and said that board members should demonstrate their commitment to the nonprofits they serve by sharing their Witness, their Work, their Wisdom, and their Wealth.

Sharing one’s witness means to be willing and able to tell why you’re involved with an organization, especially why you’re willing to make the time and expend the energy to serve on its board of directors.  Bearing witness means demonstrating energy on the nonprofit’s behalf, endorsing its programs and speaking positively about it to others.  As a board member it means learning as much as you can about the organization, staying current on the factors impacting it and similar agencies, and being an ambassador for the organization’s programs and mission.

Sharing one’s work is fairly easy to explain.  All nonprofits want board members who show up, are willing to roll up their proverbial shirt sleeves and DO the important work of the board—hiring the executive director, monitoring the progress of the organization’s programs, helping to ensure its financial stability, recruiting others who can effectively serve on the board, and being present for meetings and events.  Board work encompasses governance, planning, fiscal oversight, management supervision, advocacy, stewardship, and organizational evaluation.

Having board members who’ll share their wisdom with your organization is essential. When you recruit an accountant for your board, you should surely expect that accountant to be knowledgeable about the organization’s budget, its assets and its liabilities.  The same goes for all board members whether they are attorneys, clergy, business executives, marketing experts, builders, or whatever their profession.  Board members should not expect that their professional expertise is left at the boardroom door.  That’s why savvy executive directors will take the time to study the makeup of the board and determine where “gaps” need to be filled in terms of expertise.

Sharing their wealth means that board members are willing to make a meaningful financial commitment to your organization and will actively encourage others to do the same.  A meaningful contribution can vary based on the income level of board members, but what’s important is that board members are making their most significant gifts to the organizations they serve.  If your organization is not in a board member’s top three philanthropies, it’s time to make a change.  The expectation that board members must financially support your organization needs to be spelled out clearly when they are recruited.

Unfortunately, we hear from too many nonprofits about poor behavior by board members across the spectrum of the “Four W’s”—those who talk negatively in public about the nonprofit they serve, disparage the staff, share confidential plans outside the boardroom, don’t come to meetings regularly, won’t make a gift, and complain about the time they’re wasting on board activities. 

When board members behave badly, there’s work to be done.  It’s up to the executive director to inform the chair of the board when members are not living up to their commitment.  In turn, the chair must act swiftly and firmly to address these negative behaviors and to remind board members of  their obligations of board service.

Membership on a nonprofit’s board of directors carries with it a commitment to advance the interests of the organization. Service to a nonprofit and its mission should be a rewarding experience for all board members.  That service can be enhanced by dedication to follow “The Four W’s” with members willing to share their witness, work, wisdom and wealth.