What Makes for a Good Trustee?

What Makes for a Good Trustee?
October 5, 2015 Ron Wormser

“Why is that a relevant question?”

The answer is another question, “How satisfied are you with the board’s overall performance and with the level of productive engagement of its members?

If history is any guide, many if not most boards and management would rely, “Not much.”

Ineffective boards and unengaged trustees are symptoms which have plagued nonprofits for as long as anyone can remember. That’s kind of remarkable, given the amount of time, effort and money invested by many very able and dedicated people for years and the abundance of materials available.

It’s worth asking why the symptoms persist and are so widespread when there is no shortage of prescriptions for mitigating and building effective boards with engaged trustees.

Let me share with you what I’ve come to believe are root causes of the symptoms.

I think the place to start is by asking, “What makes a trustee ‘good’”?

“Why start there?”

It is easier to build an effective board when the members are engaged. And it is virtually impossible for a board to be effective with unengaged members.

“OK. What makes a ‘good’ trustee?”

I have come to understand that there are certain characteristics which trustees need to have in order to become constructively engaged:

1. Passion – Trustees must care, and care deeply, for the mission of the organization. They must believe that the mission of the organization is important, important enough to warrant their time and effort.

Without passion, little or none of the rest will follow.

2. Commitment – Trustees must have the ability and willingness to devote time and effort to the nonprofit at some mutually acceptable level.

Commitment is how passion is manifested.

3. Awareness of roles and expectations – Trustees and nonprofits must be clear and explicit with themselves and with each other about their respective roles and responsibilities. Both need to clearly understand what they are responsible for, separately and together, and what they want and expect from the other.

Absent significant overlapping understandings and expectations, there is considerable risk of both parties being disappointed and frustrated with each other.

4. Knowledge – To make informed decisions, trustees must learn about and support what the organization does and how it does it. Ensuring that new and continuing trustees are provided sufficient (but not overwhelming) information and opportunities to understand, appreciate and support the work of the nonprofit is a shared responsibility of the board and management.

Uninformed trustees do not make, cannot make decisions in the best interest of the organization.

“Is that it? It’s that simple?”

Not at all. Quite the contrary. Building and maintaining an effective board with engaged trustees take time and effort from everyone.

But the potential for achieving those objectives becomes much greater if starting with board members who share these characteristics. Such members provide a solid foundation for everything else.

This commentary is copyrighted © 2015 by Ron Wormser.

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