Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Marquee" Members on Nonprofit Boards

The other day in The New York Times there was an article about cultural organizations in New York City striving to attract celebrities to support them. Whereas in the past the “stars” were largely asked to be honorary chairs of fundraising events, now membership on boards are being offered. For instance actress Sarah Jessica Parker has a seat on the New York City Ballet board. Sometimes the normal conditions of board membership are waived, such as minimum annual donation (in the Ballet’s case a reported $50,000) and meeting attendance requirements. The rationale is that the star power’s ability to attract attention outweighs other considerations. Ms. Parker was pictured in the article as honorary co-chair of a Brooklyn Museum gala, which she was only able to attend for 30 minutes, just enough time for photographs. A star’s schedule is clearly an issue. Some celebrities however, such as Alec Baldwin on the NY Philharmonic board, appear to be actively involved.

The issue of “marquee” names on boards is not restricted to the highly-charged NYC cultural scene. I have worked with several boards where I have come across this: “We need to have a ____________(fill in name of prominent local family) on the board.” And if the nominating committee or board president agrees to proceed? The person is approached and especially if they have little or no connection to the organization, the recruiter might be tempted to say “You needn’t worry; you don’t have to attend meetings or raise money (including your own).” If the person agrees to serve under these conditions, then you have the classic “marquee” board member – a name on the letterhead board list –and that’s it.

It cannot be denied that board lists are reviewed by potential supporters to get a sense of the prominence of the organization. But aside from any possible initial benefit of the presence of a _____________on the board list, what is the gain? I suggest not much and in fact, it may end up as a detriment.

Effective boards operate as organisms, where each part contributes to the whole. A seat occupied (taken up is a better description) by a cipher can have a negative effect on board members who are making their contributions, money and/or work, to further the mission of the organization. They might wonder about the board leadership’s concept of value. Much is written about staff morale, but board morale is an issue not to be ignored.

In my experience I have found an effective way to combine the value of a “name” with the needs of building and maintaining a good board. It lies in the process of cultivation and delineation of clear expectations.

“Names” are rightfully suspicious of the motives of those who are after them to serve on boards, especially if the solicitation comes right out the blue, as above. They want my name; they want my money is a common reaction. That suspicion can be reduced if prior to the “ask” there is a period where the person’s interest in the work of the organization is carefully nurtured by exposure to programs and even an invitation to serve on a working committee. In this way a mutual familiarity can be reached. With a degree of comfort level achieved, the request for board service seems more of a natural progression in what has in fact become a relationship. Furthermore it will not come as a surprise that the invitation is accompanied by the outlining of expectations regarding meeting attendance and annual “give or get” financial support.

Everyone wants to be appreciated and valued – names and celebrities are no exception. Board members who share that feeling in common can contribute much to the success of a nonprofit.

I will be writing more about board development. Comments on blogs always welcome at: