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Passion vs. Competency

Posted by David Styers on Mar 2, 2012 12:02:45 PM

By David Styers, director of member education and engagement; senior governance consultant

OK, pick one – a board member candidate who is passionate about your mission or another with competency in nonprofit governance. Whom do you choose? Dave Sternberg, a well-respected BoardSource senior governance consultant, weighed in on this question a few weeks ago when he tweeted: “Boards consume themselves with finding passionate board members…not competent ones.” Wondering if BoardSource’s members agreed, I posted Dave’s Tweet as a discussion on our members-only LinkedIn group site. Quite a few people, I am pleased to say, had definite opinions. Now, it’s my turn to share mine.

I think Dave is right. Almost without exception, when I ask board members why they serve on a board, they answer “passion for the mission.” I don’t think anyone has ever replied, “Because I’m good at it” or “Because I love to read financial statements!” In fact, because passion is so common an answer, BoardSource took it out of the equation when we asked board members and chief executives which recruitment criteria are most important to their organizations in the most recent BoardSource Nonprofit Governance Index: “Other than passion for the mission, which three of the following criteria do you think are most important to the organization when selecting board members?” When we asked these same people to rate their boards’ overall competency, chief executives gave their boards a C+, while board members gave themselves a B (board members always rate themselves higher than their CEOs do). The greatest difference in opinion, by the way, was around fundraising and community outreach.

New board members, though, have an excuse for their mediocre grades. The fact is, no board member comes to board service having majored in nonprofit governance in college. Although there are board trainings in many communities, and BoardSource offers a certificate in nonprofit board education, most board members look to their organizations for “on-the-job” training. The problem is: A board doesn’t know what a board doesn’t know.

To help address this issue, a national board I know requires every new member to have prior board experience. But, again, a board doesn’t know what a board doesn’t know. Just because someone has served on a board doesn’t mean it was an effective board or that he or she learned good governance skills. Actually, the reverse could be true! And if every board required previous board experience, governance rookies would never have an opportunity to get their feet in the boardroom door!

So, if it’s unreasonable to expect all new board members to come with governance competency, what should we be looking for in new members, if not passion? The answer is a desire to truly engage and be engaged in governance. And then we need to deliver. Even the most passionate board members will lose heart if they do not feel that they are appreciated or add value to the governance of the organization. And the competent ones will be so frustrated as to jump ship if they feel like they cannot make positive change. Exceptional boards see their members as a value add and are consumed with engaging them – with providing them with opportunities to develop their governance competency and increase their passion for the mission.

Ultimately, passion and competence are trumped by engagement. What are you doing to engage your board members in building their governance competency and passion for your mission?

Topics: Board Best Practices, New Trends & Resources


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