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Partners and Senior Advisors use the firm's blog to write on current ethics and leadership topics.

On Being an Effective Trustee

An old aphorism about being a trustee of a nonprofit institution notes that the institution should receive two out of the following three from a trustee – work, wisdom, or wealth. While simplistic, there is a kernel of truth here. As a way of elaborating on the aphorism, let me suggest the following characteristics of the most effective trustees I have known:

Committed — this covers knowing and caring about the mission of the institution, spending time getting to know and to understand the institution, its culture, and its leadership, reading the institution’s history, and concluding the institution and its mission are important enough to invest not just nominal time and money, but real commitment.

Prepared — seems basic but it is amazing the sins that are committed by trustees who are not prepared for board and committee meetings, speaking engagements on behalf of the institution, and friend/fundraising opportunities. If the institution’s staff is not providing the proper materials or background briefings, the trustee must insist they be provided.

Strategic — trustees have the responsibility to take the long view and to insure the institution’s future in perpetuity. Trustees should resist the all too human impulse to “shoot from the hip” and the all too frequent bottom-line orientation that calls for a decision right now. If the institution is being led properly, very few decisions at the trustee level need to be made today. If the administration is insisting on such decisions, it may be time to review the performance of the executive leadership.

Available, but detached — good nonprofit leaders use their trustees as sounding boards on a wide variety of issues. Nonprofit institutions can be very intense internally and thus, trustees can provide advice, support, and perspective. Trustees also need to be available and willing to take on “friend/fundraising” assignments.

But, trustees should never confuse their role as policy makers with the actual management of the institution. Trustees are “there” when needed by the institution’s leadership but also always “apart.” When trustees get too close to the daily life of the institution, they begin to lose their effectiveness as trustees.  And, when trustees confuse policy making with management, they risk the very future of the institution.  Another part of being available reminds me of Woody Allen’s comment that, “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” The same is true for trustees.              

A Loving Critic — the best nonprofit leaders quickly recognize that the most useful advice, wisdom, and correction they receive typically comes from outstanding trustees. Whether advice or correction, it was presented in private, between persons with mutual respect, and in the best interests of the leader and the institution.

Generous — this needs to be understood as both time and money, within the reasonable capacity of the trustee. We act on our deepest values through our time and money.  If a trustee isn’t being generous with one or the other or both, then the institution and the trustee should revisit Committed above.

Ethical — almost daily headlines remind us this is not as obvious as it seems. No conflicts of interest or commitment, no cutting corners, no requests for special favors, no squandering of institutional resources on trustee comforts or perks, no extravagant salaries for the institution’s leadership, and no looking the other way if the trustee knew or should have known.

Probing — nothing sharpens nonprofit leadership like the expectation that trustees will ask the hard questions … gently but firmly and without intent to embarrass, but also without tolerance for sloppy or negligent or dishonest responses. The minute a trustee hears “trust me” or words that even vaguely resemble it from an institution’s leader he/she should go on “red alert” for something is very wrong or will be soon.


Posted in Governance
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