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

Should I Join This Board of Trustees?

Most of us are flattered and intrigued when we are asked to join a nonprofit board of trustees.  This is particularly true if we already have some involvement with the institution or are already committed to the institution’s mission.  When asked to join a board, we think about the time involved, the philanthropic expectations, and the match of our skills and experience with the work of the board and the institution. 

But, do we ask, “Is this board healthy and productive in its service to the institution?” Below are three easy tests for determining whether a board is functioning at a level that should attract you to become a part of its work:

BOARD POLICIES:  Boards function in a variety of ways based on tradition, institutional circumstance, and at least occasionally, best practice.  In other words, every board has its own quirks that may at best be charming and at worst harmless.  But, the best boards have some practices in common.  They have a Committee on Trustees that has board approved policies and procedures for new trustee identification and recruitment, for board leadership transitions, for trustee orientation and education, for trustee conflict of interest issues, for trustee term limits, for trustee mandatory retirement, and for trustee evaluation.

I know of a board that has no term limits, no mandatory retirement age, and no trustee evaluation procedures.  Trustee terms of over thirty years are not unusual, some key committees have had the same chairperson for over twenty years, and trustees in their dotage are not uncommon.  Not a board on which I would want to serve!

PHILANTHROPY:  One of the indicia of a healthy institution and a healthy culture of philanthropy is a board that acknowledges, encourages, and supports philanthropic efforts as a part of its leadership of the institution.  The board should have an active and productive Development Committee and every member of the board should be a donor, within his or her resources.  Trustee candidates should expect a candid conversation initiated by a board leader about philanthropic expectations including both trustee giving and trustee participation in development activities.

Some years ago, I met with a small group of trustees at an institution that desperately needed to improve its philanthropic efforts.  After making what I thought was a particularly compelling case for the importance of trustee leadership in the institution’s program of philanthropy, the chairman of the board said, “Mr. Anderson, what you describe may work at some institutions but it isn’t appropriate for this institution.”  Not a board on which I would want to serve! 

GOVERNANCE:  The work of a board of trustees is strategic and long range.  It involves policy making and oversight of the operations of the institution.  But, it does not involve management of the institution.  A board that believes and behaves as if it is running the institution is a debilitating burden for a nonprofit to bear. 

Not too long ago, I had a trustee committee chair on one of the most dysfunctional boards that I had ever encountered tell me she needed twice weekly reports from the institution’s vice president if she was to be successful “running” the division.  When I suggested that perhaps it was the vice president’s responsibility to “run” the division and not hers, she dismissed me as not understanding the work of a trustee.  Not a board on which I would want to serve!

Posted in Governance