Three Groups of Prospective Board Members

Your nonprofit board probably has representatives from each of three groups. The members of two of the groups probably serve you well. The members of one group are seldom helpful but often present.

The three groups are:

Generalists – The generalist are broadly interested in the cause, the segment your nonprofit is in, and your mission. They think broadly about issues, see the big picture, talk about long-term goals, and have time to help with almost every activity. Besides being generous with their time, they contribute financially, recruit other members and donors, and are happy to represent your mission to the public.

Specialists – The specialists focus on one or two specific issues. They focus on the effect anything will have on their issues. Their goals are specific to their issues. They are generous with their time if the need is associated with their issues. They provide expertise about the areas of interest to them, they contribute when their area of interest needs support, and they are a member as long as their interest areas receive adequate attention. While they are willing to recruit members and donors, they only look for likeminded individuals.

Peripherals – The peripherals are only loosely invested in your mission. They care about how their association will help them (increase their prestige to be associated with a good cause, meet the right people, etc.). They invest the minimum possible. Their goals are personal and tangential to the mission at best. They would prefer to limit their gift to their name on the membership role but will make a gift, if it will help them.

The generalists are the easiest to manage and engage. However, a board with only generalists usually results in a nonprofit that is a mile wide and an inch deep. Without at least one area of excellence, it is hard to attract and hold donors and volunteers. It is also difficult to make a compelling case for community support. The generalists have the objectivity necessary to pick an area of excellence that will appeal to the community, donors, and volunteers. However, they lack the expertise or interest to create the excellence.

The specialists limit their engagement to their focused interests. Their passion and enthusiasm can distract the board from broader issues. However, the specialists bring passion, knowledge, and energy to critical areas. When you have two or three board members with the same focus, it helps to create an area of excellence for the mission and a compelling reason for donors, volunteers, and the community to provide loyal support.

The peripherals are almost impossible to engage. As a result, it is best to avoid them unless their membership will significantly increase donation, increase the perceived importance of your mission with the public, or provide significant PR value. Since they are often recruited by other nonprofits and readily available (they have time since they do very little), their PR value often declines over time.

Next Step:

Categorize each of your board members

Decide how many individuals you need in each group

Use the next board member recruiting cycle to optimize your board member balance

Use what you know about your board members to optimize board committee assignments

Be careful how you think about specialization. Imagine your nonprofit’s mission is to provide non-medical support for cancer patients. Two or three members whose special focus is breast cancer would limit the community impact. However, two or three members whose special focus is patient comfort would create a broad and valuable impact on the community.

The area of excellence will create sustainability, uniqueness, and durable value. Trust the generalists on the board to tell you when to shift the focus and what the new focus should be. Trust the specialists to create the excellence.

Do you have the right mix on your board?

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