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Courage

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Patti Head ShotSpecial to the Philanthropy Journal

By Patti Gillenwater

What is the most important trait you can bring to the boardroom? The usual responses to this question range from passion for the cause, subject matter expertise, or connections for fundraising. Today, I’m going to ask you to think about courage in the boardroom.

Board dynamics are really tricky and the basic design of a nonprofit board typically works against a board member who brings this trait into the room. The synonyms for the word “courage” clarify why this is so. While “bravery” and “valor” have positive connotations in our society, the words “mettle” and “audacity” are not typically considered positive behaviors or desirable traits in a board room setting.

2009 Elinvar LogoWhat has happened when you were serving on a board and you had concerns about either the financial status of the organization or the leadership abilities of the current executive director? Did you speak out and ask the tough questions to discover the facts and help shed light on the situation for your fellow board members?

In theory, speaking out to ask the tough questions should be easy to do because that is a primary function and responsibility of the board. Every board member is equally responsible for this duty and they should not defer to others who have more experience or serve on the executive committee.  

We are, in reality, human. This means that we may feel less knowledgeable than others on the board or reluctant to be seen as negative toward a staff member or other board member. So it does take a certain amount of bravery to speak out. Pat yourself on the back if you have done in this in the past and keep this in mind when you are observing this behavior in others on your board.

When you asked the hard questions, how did your other board members respond? Did they recognize your courage and support it? In many cases, if you are thinking something, others who are not speaking out are as well. So then, one of two things happen.

Others jump in and support your concerns during the meeting or they come up to you after the meeting to express their support. I am advocating for everyone to have the courage to say what they believe – especially when not in agreement with others – in the board room. This “audacity” will result in a rich and productive discussion and should lead to the right resolution for the organization.

When a board member questions the status quo, the other board members have a responsibility to react in a manner that does not dismiss the questions being raised. If you are that board member who agrees with the “audacious” one but does not speak up in the meeting, consider why you are not willing to do that. With that self-examination, ask yourself what could the impact be on the organization if you do not speak up? Consider how it impacts the organization as well as how it impacts the people your organization is committed to serving.  

As a board member, your three legal duties are: the duty of care, loyalty and honesty. Your primary function is to ensure that the paid leader running your nonprofit is successfully executing on the mission as approved by the board.

Too often, boards are willing to settle for leadership that is keeping things running, instead of having the courage to expect more. In our world the needs of those being served by our sector are increasing daily. At the same time, the support and safety nets provided by others are not enough to keep up with these challenges.

Now, like no time in our history, board members need to lead with courage and not be deterred by labels of being meddlesome. Let’s rebrand the term “audacious” so that it is associated with results and impact. And let’s have the courage to not settle for anything less!


Patti Gillenwater is CEO of Elinvar. Elinvar is a retained search and leadership development firm that specializes in serving mission driven organizations.

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