The World's Best Board Member

In my 42 years of serving on and working with boards, I have met thousands of board members. What makes a truly great board member?

The best of the best of the best is my friend John Russell. Recently I went to an event he sponsored. He had just joined the board of Opera Theater of Saint Louis. Instead of making a big donation, which would in itself have been a wonderful thing to do, he brought 75 friends to a pre-opera dinner. Many then went on to the opera. (My husband and I skipped this because we already knew how it ended. Everyone died.)

Why is this so much better than just giving a huge donation? He used his sphere of influence to promote the opera. Some people he invited were longtime opera lovers, some had never been. Some were already supporters, some will no doubt become supporters. I have been to other events where John has purchased 50 to 75 tickets to introduce people to the causes he cares about. I have always brought my credit card and at the very least bought a ton of raffle tickets. I've seen others do the same.

I've also observed John as a board president. When he began his tenure at Help/PSI, a New York health-care charity for the poor, I told Paul Vitale, the CEO, "Enjoy your years with John. You will never have a better board president."

John did all of the things you would hope and pray a board president would do. He scheduled his time around agency events so he could represent the board. He was an active participant in strategic planning. He shared his passion with friends and colleagues. He ran a great meeting. He made a significant financial gift. The list goes on.

I think Paul believed me when I raved about John, but when Superstorm Sandy hit and Paul, who lives with his family in the flood zone of Manhattan, lost power, John was on the phone inviting him to stay in his warm and electricity-filled condo near Columbus Circle. John divides his time between St. Louis and New York and was in St. Louis at the time of the storm. While Paul's condo was without electricity, elevator service, or water, he and his family spent those five days at John's fabulous condo. (No CEO can function without electricity at home.)

John serves nonprofits for all the right reasons. He's a financial adviser, but he never looks for clients among the people he works with on a board. He is not there to sell, he is there to serve.

I met him at a board retreat years ago. I was so impressed with the insightful questions he asked that I started to ask around about how he was as an adviser: I'm always on the lookout for people who would be great board members, especially people with expertise, like finance. Chuck Miller, a lawyer who has served on boards with John told me, "I think there are a lot of great money managers. John gives the best parties." I was sold.

One of the most difficult lessons I've learned from John is when to keep your mouth shut. Not an easy thing for many of us. We were both involved with another board, and I asked him if he thought one of the group's efforts would succeed. I thought it was dead in the water. He agreed with me but said that telling the executive director wasn't the answer. She had to let it play out to fully appreciate how hopeless it was.

So, in summary, what do fabulous board members do?

  1. Not only give money but share the mission with people in their sphere of influence.
  2. Support the executive director. Sometimes this is about listening and supporting, and sometimes it is about treating him or her like you would treat your best friend.
  3. Focus on the mission, not a personal agenda. Although a trustee might get clients by serving on a board, it is not the place to troll for business.
  4. A great board member knows when to speak up and when to zip it. This is one of the most difficult skills to learn. I am still working on this one.

The good news for me is that John is in my life. The other good news is that there are not many nonprofit board presidents like him, or nonprofit consultants like me would be out of business

Look for your best of the best of the best and treat him or her like gold.

Paul and Helen Vitale and John Russell at "Priscilla Queen of the Dessert"

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