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Fantastic board members (and how to be one)

By Jen Pendleton, Vice President-Indiana

I’ve worked with a lot of boards in a lot of capacities. I’ve been a staff member, a staff leader, a board member and even a board chair before becoming a nonprofit advisor.

After 23 years of working in the nonprofit sector, I know that each role is challenging for different reasons. However, the most consistent question I hear is from board members asking, “What should I really be doing?” These conscientious people want to help but are hesitant to speak up for fear they should already know.

If this resonates, you’re not alone! To help boards evolve, we have developed 10 essential principles that constitute a fantastic board member, and will be offering a workshop on the topic in Indianapolis in March. [Learn more and register here] To give you a sneak peak, I’m sharing our first principle and it’s one of the hardest things for a board to do. Ready for some secret sauce?


This may seem obvious, so let me drill down a bit. In our nonprofit world of overflowing plates, noble causes, dedicated people and not enough resources, the “evolved” board member will challenge its organization to be focused.

Here is an example.  As board members of a nonprofit, we see a need or a problem surfaces. As leaders of our organization, we decide the organization needs to add XYZ component to its work. Instead of critically assessing the effect, we pat ourselves on the back for being problem solvers and call it a day.

Too often our noble intentions can lead us astray and we solve problems by adding programs, services and events. An evolved board member should not just try to solve the problem, but approach it in a way that first assesses 1) if it fits in with the organization’s current strategies/focus and 2) if staff have the capacity to sustain the new idea/program.

The board member’s role is to encourage their organization to be laser-focused on a few key priorities. This is because most of our organizations don’t have unlimited resources and are constantly being asked to do more with less.

My challenge to board members: determine, in partnership with your staff team, the top three organizational priorities. And don’t waiver.  Don’t add.  Remain focused and be most excellent at those priorities. You must help everyone stay laser-focused on those priorities in order to be amazingly successful at them.

This type of evolved leadership brings added benefits:

  • You have a mission-specific litmus test of core priorities.  This aids in the conversation of what your organization might want to STOP doing and how to say no.
  • It will intuitively cause you to seek partners to help fill voids that may exist versus starting a new program, service or event.
  • You will maximize your limited resources. For example, downsizing your committee structure to support organizational priorities for more effective engagement.
  • It allows staff members with multiple priorities to focus and prioritize their work, which can enhance quality, productivity and overall job satisfaction.
  • You become even better masters at your craft and focus on what you are “best in the world at” (Will readers know this book? per Good to Great).

As a board member, you must reinforce this focus. Lead the organization in identifying and mastering its core before allowing additional things to be added. And, when the core has been mastered – thoughtfully consider whether you even want to add additional things and if the organization has adequate capacity to proceed.

Board members are the guardians of their organizations and their missions. Our organizations can’t be everything to everyone, but if we focus on a doing a few things better than anyone else, we can change the world.

If you’re not in Indianapolis, contact us to find out how to bring this workshop to your community.

Jen Pendleton, CFRE