The Recipe for an Exceptional Board Member

A group of people having a meeting
Jeb Banner
Jeb Banner, CEO Boardable

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Jeb Banner, CEO Boardable

Many executive directors daydream about discovering the perfect board member. Perhaps the daydream was born of frustration regarding a current board member, and the director suddenly found himself or herself wishing “if only I could have the perfect board member…”

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What if you could? If you could create the perfect board member, what would that description include? What qualities or characteristics would that person have? As a nonprofit founder, board member, and now CEO of a nonprofit software product, I think about this a lot. Here is my list of the expectations nonprofits should have of an exceptional board member.

Passion. All board members must bring a passion to the organization. While vast knowledge certainly helps, knowledge alone is not everything. Executive directors certainly need board members with specific knowledge, such as legal or financial, but a proper mindset is just as important. Most directors can think back over their board history, conjuring up individuals who seemed like outstanding board members on paper, but were not because they lacked passion and a “can do” attitude. The truth is, heart and mindset are critically important. Nonprofit directors know this because they have been able to accomplish great things with a largely volunteer effort. People with passion make the difference. Passionate people bring a certain energy to the organization, and their spirit is motivating for everyone. The exceptional board member has a pre-existing passion for the cause, and is not afraid to show that passion for both the cause and the organization. The passionate board member will commit time, energy and resources to board service, and likely has the propensity to financially give at an above-average level.

Work ethic. Along the same lines as the passion factor, having a board member who has a strong work ethic can be just as important as the specific knowledge they bring to the table. You have seen varying degrees of work ethic in your current board. Some are there to genuinely contribute to the cause, while others are there only to pad their resumes. Either way, whatever the motivating factor is, you want people with a strong work ethic. When new to the board, you want someone who will invest the time to learn about the board, about how it functions, and how he or she can best contribute. You want someone who is always prepared and who has put in the time before the meeting instead of just showing up. You want someone who attends every meeting without leaving early, and someone who will commit to extra duties or functions outside of the regular board meetings.

Proactive thinking. The ideal board member is always two steps ahead of the game. They’re not just at the board meeting to get a report. Instead, the ideal board member has already anticipated what will be needed next, and they have come prepared to discuss options about how they can best help the organization.

Leading by example. Let’s face it, the best board members lead by example. They not only talk the talk, but they walk the walk, and are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty if it benefits the organization’s bottom line. Lip service does not constitute leadership. People who lead by example are great leaders who know that actions speak louder than words. They raise the average of everyone around them, and inspire new members to keep up.

Relationship builder. The best board members are those who can build relationships with everyone from the executive director, fellow board members, to the organization staff and members of the community who are key to your mission. The goal is to find a board member who will make the extra effort to build these relationships, outside of the regular meetings. Not only is this attribute helpful for development, it also builds a more effective group of board members.

Depth. The best board members bring both breadth and depth to the board. Perhaps the new board member has been brought on to contribute legal expertise. Not only should the board member bring those resources, but he or she should also utilize the depth of past experience to be able to contribute in different areas and help with different situations.

Outspoken. It’s not helpful to have a board member who agrees with everyone 100% of the time. The ideal board member will certainly be supportive, but will also contribute opinions, even on the most delicate of topics. Snap judgments rarely are beneficial, so the exceptional board member will fully understand the issue at hand and offer thoughtful and insightful opinions. They will be able to speak freely, but knowledgeably.

How do you find these incredible attributes? Take your time with potential board member interviews. Pay attention not only to the resume points, but also how the individual corresponds with you, interacts with others, and communicates concerns or disagreement. Being patient yet open-minded in your search will yield board members who will strengthen your board and your organization.


Jeb is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a nonprofit board management software provider. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way of Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Boardable is an online board management portal that centralizes communication, document storage, meeting planning, and everything else that goes into running a board of directors.

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