What It Takes to Build Good Board Members

06/12/2015 02:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

The best social sector organizations are led by strong, robust, and thoughtful board members. Their job is to provide strategic guidance, counsel, connections, and oversight, but most importantly, their job is to provide good governance. Unfortunately, too often, board members aren't truly prepared to do that job.

Every year, nearly 1.8 million board seats become available, adding to a backlog of 1.2 million standing openings. Yet, research shows that many nonprofit boards are not functioning at the highest level possible. As more corporate leaders are tapped for board positions, there remains a significant knowledge gap between the social and private sector. According to a survey from Stanford GSB, 32 percent of the almost 1,000 nonprofits they surveyed don't think their board can evaluate their organization's performance. It is increasingly important for board members to understand how the social sector works, so they can translate their skillsets into solving the world's biggest problems.

Similarly, there is a significant age gap when it comes to board leadership. Only 16 percent of board members are under the age of 40, yet there is a huge need and desire to engage this demographic. As millennials, they are set to inherit $30 trillion dollars. Further, not only do they want to make an impact in the social sector, regardless of issue area, they want to get deeply involved in the organizations they are most passionate about.

So, at Echoing Green, we believe the answer is offering opportunities and training for these young corporate professionals who want to make a difference. Our newest program, Direct Impact, prepares young business leaders to serve on the boards of Echoing Green Fellows, social entrepreneurs who we support for a two-year Fellowship program. The program engages young corporate leaders through an experiential leadership and board training program that connects them to emerging leaders working on everything from developing agricultural solutions to solve childhood malnutrition in Rwanda to creating new STEM and coding pathways in the US through wearable tech. We want to make sure that they are trained not only to become outstanding board members, but to also look within themselves and understand who they are and what they bring to the table as leaders.

As one of our own Board members has said, great Board members meet the three W's:

Wisdom: Wisdom means that Board members bring good judgment to the table. You can't have wisdom without education and experience, and it's essential to provide young board members with those hands-on opportunities to build their knowledge base. However, it's also important to acknowledge that Millennials are often more attuned to "what's next," and can provide insight into innovative solutions in new, fresh ways.

Work: For a lot of our social entrepreneurs, who are just launching their organizations, they need board members who are ready to roll up their sleeves. Board members are often asked to join meetings, sit on committees with specific duties, and at times, make difficult, delicate, and challenging decisions. What's important is to provide the tools that allow young professionals to tap into their own skills in a way that aligns with the social sector needs and realities.

Wealth: While not every board member needs to be wealthy, a key component of nonprofit board leadership is providing fundraising support. Being a great board member means sharing your network, and keeping your eyes peeled for opportunities when you can best promote the organization.

Today, millennials are coming of age in a time when they want to work in an environment that supports a social mission. Almost two-thirds of Millennial employees, according to a study from The Brookings Institute, said they wanted their employer to contribute to social or ethical causes they felt were important. Only half of the Boomers and older Gen Xers surveyed felt the same way. It's time to harness this interest and energy, so that these leaders can directly impact the organizations that need their guidance and governance. And, so that all Board Members become good Board Members.

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