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8 Characteristics Of An Outstanding Board Member

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“Are you interested in joining our nonprofit’s board?”

This question has been posed to me a lot recently. Maybe it’s my age or my reputation in the nonprofit sector.

Occasionally, I hear from those who are interested in joining a board themselves. Some want to make their resume look better. Some genuinely want to make a difference. Either way, I always inquire as to what they think constitutes an outstanding board member.

Here are my favorite characteristics of an outstanding board member


These 8 traits are what an outstanding board member is capable of

  1. Pre-existing passion for the cause
  2. Eagerness to participate at every meeting
  3. Willing to prepare ahead for meetings
  4. Anxious to serve on committees
  5. Ability and propensity to give above average financially
  6. Strong desire for stewardship to others
  7. Supportive, but willing to express their own opinion
  8. Strives to learn as much as possible

How many of these does your board have individually? How many do you have as a board member?

Knowledge isn’t everything

Many people believe it is some vast knowledge about the mission or the law or finances or fundraising that signifies a strong potential board member. Don’t get me wrong, all of that knowledge can be a huge asset. However, they must be accompanied by the proper mindset.

All board members should bring a passion for the mission of the organization.

The reason for the above conclusion is first hand experience watching board members, who could have been phenomenal based upon their knowledge or background in the particular charity’s cause or the law or finance or fundraising who were terrible board members.

We have all seen it happen where a “can do” attitude and/or a strong work ethic trumps vast amounts of knowledge or experience. Think of times you have seen this at your place of employment or within a pure volunteer project or on some type of team event.

Mindset is everything

The “heart” of the team or the catalyst for success often can be traced back to the least likely person based upon knowledge. They make the difference based upon the proper mindset being ever present, and as such, leading to extra efforts and a contagious spirit for everyone.

Please think about these attributes as you search for future board members for your organization or use as a self-test prior to raising your hand as a possible board member. Just think how wildly successful every board would be if each and every member possessed all eight attributes!

Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Sandra Jackson

    I am starting a nonprofit organization, and in the process of recruiting for board members. I have read each of your comments, and I agree with all. However, the board members I’m searching for will be team players, they will be passionate to others no matter what the cause may be. I’m searching for people who are energetic, and knowledgeable, not to mention considerate to others ideas and suggestions. All of the 8 characteristics will play a vital part in what I will expect from my board members, not so much of #5, but yes will be considered. Therefore, if you’ve have a mindset and the ability to be part of the startup for this organization, and be part of the my board member team, you may contact me @ [email protected].
  • Goldie A. Malloy

    Sometimes a leader of the Board becomes personal when a Board Member does not agree with their position. They become angry and vindictive when a Board Member gives a legitimate complaint about an issue. I do not see that on the list.
  • Stephan Lauzier

    Teamwork is missing from this list. A board member needs to be a contributor of experience, energy, and passion, but it also needs to be open to the views of others and willing to accept and support them when they further the Mission. A board member who is overly critical of management in non-constructive ways contributes nothing. A board member who is critical of management and staff in ways that stray from the business objectives into attacks and destructive actions needs to be rebuked and censured by its board, and if continued removed.
  • carolyn

    No doubt, Money helps! So if a doner who has contributed a lot should wish to be on a Board, that's Ok from where I am. I would not be that person .. but it's great when one contributes to the org ... there are plenty of others the donor can rely on ..
  • Steven Shattuck

    I think "above average" can be donor-centric, not org-centric, In other words, it's a major gift for the giver (because they're invested) and not necessarily a major gift for the org.
  • Carol

    I disagree with #5 as well. Many people I encounter within the people willing to serve on boards seem to be of pensionable age with limited income but lots of energy to get the job done. They usually give what they can monetarily but can’t be relied on to provide endless funds to the group they are representing. Many attending the functions that the board is supporting tend to be people with more disposable income and to that end should not, in my opinion, be subsidizing those who can pay.for a good deal more. To that end it is imperative that boards tap into those people with a view to getting them to give more. It’s a 50-50 blend these days I think, If you don’t have time to be on a board but want the function then be prepared to pay a bit more.
  • Jatana McCormick

    Thank you so much for this article. I found it disheartening that the majority of those who commented had a problem with #5. I am the Executive Director of a nonprofit and giving financially is the hardiest thing to deal with Board members about when they are the governance of the finances. To me, when you are truly passionate about something you give selflessly not selfishly. But, thank you for the insight.
  • Dana L.

    I disagree with #5, too. If that were true, you could buy your way onto boards without feeling passionate about the mission. I do think it's about the ability and propensity to connect resources and valuable people to the organization. As a grant writer and "people person" (serving on 3 boards) I see board challenges as opportunities to engage others outside of the organization, whether government funders or professional groups with a similar mission. As a motivated team we can draw the resources into the organization from many sources who share a similar vision.
  • David Wragg

    I checked off all the items and came back to #5 and thought about it. Then I read the other comments and decided to weigh in. I'm on two boards and considering another. I'm late career, in the gig economy and work with nonprofits when I can. I don't have as much disposable income as I did in corporate but I have more time and flexibility. That's the trade off for me right there. Don't pick me for #5. I will give as much as I can and I will be 100% engaged.
  • Judy Oswald

    I also disagree to #5. It is the compassion of what knowledge, expertise of delivering necessary and important facts and solutions to proposed business.
  • Dr. Victoria Boyd

    I accept #5 but would have stated it as willingness and propensity to give based on their ability. The elephant in the room has to be addressed and made clear. Board members have financial responsibilities and keeping the mindset of "I give my time, isn't that enough?", has to be released and replaced. However, starting #5 with 'the ability' for those that take list totally literally, they may judge a good board member by their net value, not what they can bring to the table. The nonprofit sector has that unique element - board members can and do come from all walks and stations in life. Bringing a broad spectrum of perspectives which are priceless. I get concerned, based on 30 years in the sector, when a priority is, 'to learn basics of parliamentary procedures'?! Really, let's shift that mindset from being a 'manager' - focused on things, processes, control and following the rules - to being a LEADER which inspires, motivates and has a vision bigger than themselves to shape the organization's future.
  • Lori

    I like most of the points except #5. "The ability and propensity to give above average financially" for me would not be a characteristic of an outstanding board member. I would rather a potential board member have the willingness to learn the basics of parliamentary procedure in order to effectively participate as a board member. In particular how to present a motion and how to properly debate.
  • Bob Swaney

    Jay, Thank you for this very succinct and thoughtful list of board qualities. I just signed on as Board President of a local education foundation and I plan to share your article with my fellow board members. Very helpful!
  • Lisa

    I'm curious as to why you've stated point number 5 "Ability and propensity to give above average financially"?
  • Jule' Colvin

    Thank you for the great article. I will be sure to share this with my nonprofit clients. You did a great job of summarizing a great board member. Now, if it were easy to find them!
  • Bryan Orander

    Jay, Thoughtful insights, as usual. I think organizations tend to both over think and under think their board selection decisions and fall short of their potential. You often hear people talk about hiring employees for the technical skills but firing for lack of soft skills(people, communication, teamwork). Nonprofits can also get caught in a toolbox mentality of "we need a CPA, we need an atty, etc" without recognizing the even more important criteria you have noted above. All the best, Bryan
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