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

What Should a Trustee Expect in Return ?

A good deal has been written … some of it on this blog … about the characteristics of a good trustee for a nonprofit institution and what the institution and the board should expect from such a trustee.  Much less has been written about what a trustee should expect in return for service on a nonprofit board.  A recent experience at a fine institution that needs and deserves a much better governing board than it has caused some reflection on what trustees, particularly new trustees, should expect in return for their service.  At minimum, every new trustee should be:

ENGAGED:  Every trustee, particularly new trustees, should feel invited to participate in the mission of the institution and the work of the board.  New trustee orientations, committee assignments, trustee mentors, discussions with institutional officers, trustee continuing education, and invitations to institutional events should mesh to help a new trustee … and those who are not so new … feel as if they are active participants in the mission, life, and work of the institution and the board.

VALUED:  This starts with simple hospitality.  The chair of the Committee on Trustees should be sure that new trustees are introduced to other board members, to institutional officers, and to each other.  While new trustees may feel they need to listen more than speak for a time, their opinions should be solicited and treated with the same weight as those of current board members.  During the first few months of service, the chair of the board should meet individually with each new trustee to discuss the important issues facing the institution and the board and the ways the new trustee can participate in and contribute to resolving those issues. 

RESPECTED:  Every potential trustee should be invited to join a board because of a particular expertise or a set of experiences or an understanding of the institution’s mission or a willingness to be philanthropic.  The old saw that every trustee should bring two out of three characteristics to the board … work, wisdom, or wealth … is not far from being true.  And it is essential that the work, wisdom, or wealth of the new trustee be recognized, celebrated, and respected.  There is nothing worse than having a new trustee recognize that once on the board, his or her opinions are not solicited or valued, his or her experience is not being tapped, and his or her philanthropy is not adequate or appreciated.

Without term limits, mandatory retirement ages, and regular trustee performance reviews, boards can easily become “old boy and old girl” clubs.  And, sometimes they can be pretty cold and sterile for new trustees even with appropriate governance procedures in place. Power and decision making are concentrated in the hands of a few, committee leadership and assignments rarely change, new trustees are recruited who look, think, and behave like the current trustees, and new ideas die aborning.

When confronted with these board conditions, new trustees can either imagine a path to a better place for the board or they can decide to take their time, talent, and treasure to a more functional board.  Trustees are volunteers and thus, they deserve to feel engaged, valued, and respected.  And, it is in the best interests of the institution and board for that to be a regular part of every trustee’s experience.  But, it does not just happen, it takes planning, execution, and diligence as do most of the other important tasks of a functional board of trustees.

Posted in Governance