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Board Member Archetypes – and how to work with them!

A woman stands at the head of the conference table addressing her colleagues in a board meeting.

A board member has a complicated relationship with an organization because at the same time they are donors, volunteers, worker bees, and the governing body. It’s an odd dichotomy of doing work for you while you ultimately work for them. You expect your board to invest time and money into your vision so finding ways to work with, mold, and cultivate each of them individually is a central part of your job.

Remember that legally, as a 501(c)3 organization, you are required to supply a minimum of 3 directors for your corporation: President, Vice-President, and Treasurer/Secretary. This group is sometimes called a Board of Trustees, Board of Advisors, or “those you-know-whats”, but at their core, they are a group of people who support your organization in myriad ways, that can vary drastically from company to company.

There are typically 5 different types of board members:

  1. They are enthusiastic about the mission. This is the best type of board member because they are committed to the work and willing to give time and money towards supporting your vision. What a beautiful thing! The pitfall comes when they have a vision of their own – that either aligns with yours or not – and their support seems to go from “what can I do for you/the organization” to “here’s what I think the organization should be doing.” When this board member is a professional in your field, has a constructive point of view, and they are ultimately looking out for the best interest of the company, then they should be engaged in spirited discussions about your work. It fuels their interest in the mission and just because you consider their ideas (with an open mind!!) it doesn’t mean that you must take them. Be open to criticism and be honest and upfront about how much control/participation they’ll be able to have.

  2. They have another vested interest in the organization– for example, they work for a marketing firm that might want your business or they have a family member who is served by the company. These board members have a different but equally strong interest in the success of your organization. The parent needs you to succeed for their child to continue benefitting from services and the marketing owner can use you as a guinea pig for new services. In both scenarios, the relationship works if potential conflicts are disclosed, outlined in writing, and everyone is in full agreement about what they can and cannot expect from the separate relationships. These board members usually have a shorter tenure once their separate vested component changes (kids grow up/they switch jobs). Spend your time shifting their vested interest into personal enthusiasm to ensure their longevity.

  3. Their corporation encourages community engagement. (Why? Banks do better in thriving communities where everyone makes and spends money. Utility and cigarette companies need the good press. They want to look good to their customers and build loyalty among employees because you’re more likely to stay with a corporation that supports your favorite charity. For upper management, they often support board service.) With these board members, you can assume they have some interest in your mission and affection for your work because they can likely choose the organizations they support, but usually the money they commit isn’t entirely their own. Your first goal with them is to try to build loyalty and make the relationship personal so it can continue if they switch jobs or the corporate policy changes. Next, you need to understand why the corporation is supporting board service at your organization – what is in it for them and can you find ways to serve that – it could be very mutually beneficial.

  4. They just want to help. This is someone who likes your organization and has time on their hands, though not necessarily a specific skill or obvious resource that might help you. They also may be surprised by or struggle with the financial commitment of board service. They may come in with lots of ideas that should be welcomed and encouraged. Your responsibility, in turn, is to educate them on the best ways to help your organization and provide all the support they need in doing just that.

  5. They want to run something. This board member often comes in with an agenda. They’ve heard a little about what your organization wants/needs and are certain they know exactly how to get you there. They may apply experiences from their job or other boards to determine what changes need to be made and may not bother to learn your organization’s history or the experience of the people who brought the company as far as it has already come. Sometimes, they dangle their money and resources until the changes they are suggesting are made under the auspices of “this is the only way to succeed”. These board members may ask good questions and have very valid criticisms of the company. They may be right that change is necessary. When their suggestions are thinly veiled demands, take time to separate their feedback from their promise of funding. Thoughtfully determine the right time to make changes and ways that makes sense for the organization as a whole. Include staff and the rest of the board in the process -- even if that means losing this board member. It is scary to walk away from wealth, and to deny the validity of some of their complaints, but for the strength and future of your organization, this sometimes must be done.

Remember that board members are just people, opening their calendars, address books, and wallets to your mission, and find ways to connect on the common goals. With patience, boundaries, communication, and open-mindedness, they can help your organization thrive.

Need some help managing those relationships and a plan for recruiting new members? Contact us.


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