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Being a good board member means getting out and leaning in

A few weeks ago, I was at a the 2017/18 strategy meeting for the Steppenwolf Associates Board, of which I am the (newly minted) VP of Communications and Member Outreach. The location: Front Bar. The goal: how our committee was going to recruit new members, new funds, and engage the greater Chicago community. It's no small feat, and I felt the pressure.

As I sat debating, planning, drinking, and eating, I found myself asking the question, “What does it mean to be a good, working board member?”

Of course, we must plan a great social campaign, plan events, raise funds, and recruit new members. These are all good things and all part of our responsibilities. But what about underneath it all? What makes someone a true champion for the cause or organization? How do you stand out from those who simply check off the "board member" boxes?

Really know what you’re talking about

We all have interests outside of work. From fitness to feng shui, to crafting or craft brewing; there are organizations and groups for pretty much anything nowadays.

For some of us, joining a board or association is a way to combine skills we’ve acquired from years on the job and put them to good use outside the cubicle. So we start volunteering our time to an organization. Then, after a while, we’re asked (or pay) to join the board. Sweet. But research shows that just because someone is on the board, doesn't mean they get the whole picture.

Consider these sobering statistics from Insights by Stanford Business:

  • 27 percent of board members don’t think their colleagues have a strong understanding of the mission and strategy

  • 65 percent don’t think their board is very experienced, and about half don’t think their colleagues are very engaged in their work

What gives? Aren’t board members supposed to have their you-know-what together?

What gives? Aren't board members supposed to have their you-know-what together?

One of the issues is board members, who are often highly qualified, think that passion for the cause is all it takes to be a good member. Passion only takes us so far, in work, relationships, and in board leadership. When I first joined the Associates, I knew that I loved theater and loved Steppenwolf. I knew their simple story—they raise funds and support efforts for the Steppenwolf for Young Adults (SYA). But, it took me a full year to understand the organization's message and everything we accomplished in the classrooms for students and at the theater.

A few months ago I attended a panel on nonprofit board membership, and one of the panelists was Deborah Liverett, Director of Community Affairs for Northern Trust’s Community Affairs. Liverett said again and again that understanding the mission and the expectations of the organization are musts. And more often than not, overlooked by well-intentioned board members.

Get your hands dirty

I've found that going above and beyond the operational side of things makes me at least, feel part of something bigger. That means it's time to get up and get out, into the field.

I've found that going above and beyond the operational side of things makes me at least, feel part of something bigger. That means it's time to get up and get out, into the field.

While there are differences between nonprofit and corporate board members, both sides can benefit from seeing where their money goes, or who buys a product. According to the Harvard Business Review, “The goal is to target specific projects that are particularly appropriate for individual directors and to encourage participating board members to be, as one director says, “collaborative, not intrusive.”

I'll admit, my first year on the Associate's board I didn't feel a sense of engagement other than attending the social events. But I joined because I believe in theater and access to the theater for kids of all ages; especially those in urban areas who might never otherwise get to see a play.

So, I signed up for the SYA mentorship program. Was I nervous? Hell yes. But, I wanted to provide a service beyond just donating money and working on strategic initiatives.

The experience was well worth it. Not only did I develop a good relationship with my mentee, but I also brought back some insights about the program and the population it serves I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Be strategic when thinking about community diversity

A lot is said about building diversity within an organization, and how it allows multiple perspectives and voices to influence a cause.

And I have to agree. The Steppenwolf Associates board is made up of lawyers, marketers, editors, nonprofit foundation professionals, and more. Because we have this rich pool of experience, we have people who can identify opportunities for growth and development of the organization in ways that a less diverse board could not. We also are conscious of promoting diversity, which is key. As a board member, knowing when your board is lacking in a particular perspective—and then being willing to find it—is crucial.

When thinking about ways to get the word out about Steppenwolf Associates and its mission, we challenged ourselves to come up with groups in the greater Chicago community that were not obvious at first glance. Where can one find future leaders? How can we expand our mission beyond our core group and our friends? Who, it must be said, are kind-hearted but probably don't want to hear about the Associates' events all the time…

That’s how we decided to reach out to MBA programs and invite students to events and post-show cocktail hours. After all, what better way to find future leaders and engaged community members?

Plan for the present with an eye to the future

Board memberships, unlike friendships or an affinity for tacos, will not last forever. A truly engaged board member knows this. During the aforementioned strategy mentioned, one of our co-presidents asked what we envision the Associates will look like five years from now. It's a board version question of that interview question, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" No one likes it, but it forces you to do some reckoning. Why this company? Why this organization? (Why this house, why this partner, the list goes on.)

Board memberships, unlike friendships or an affinity for tacos, will not last forever. A truly engaged board member knows this.

As our fellow board member, co-president and Director of Institutional Giving at the Chicago Public Library Foundation, Kate Nardin, stated so eloquently, "I operate on the hit-by-the-bus mentality." Meaning, if we were to all leave our posts tomorrow, what systems would we leave behind that would continue or that the next leaders can pick up to continuously grow the organization?

Being a good board member requires many talents and skills. But know that it’s an ongoing learning process, which for me at least, has taken off some of the pressure and allowed me to enjoy the growth.

Rachel Henry is a Chicago-based editor at a communications firm. She spends most of her time reading her way through a giant stack of library books and trying to find the best vacation deals online.