By Derek Alley , CFRE, Co-Founder and President of Arthur Alley

board [noun]: a group of persons having managerial, supervisory, investigatory, or advisory powers

The board. Whether its members serve as directors, trustees or advisors, a board can be a huge asset or an even bigger liability. Many times, the root of dissatisfaction with an organization’s board – and the dissatisfaction of board members with the organization – is a lack of clarity surrounding the expectations of board members and what is needed from the board as a whole.

David Hubbard, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, said, “An organization hasn’t come anywhere near its full potential unless it sees the building of a great and effective board…” But how does an organization go about the task of building – and maintaining – a great one?

The 5 W’s help you provide a context for the behaviors and frame the expectations of board members.

What are the 5 W’s?

They are simple but powerful: Want to, Work, Wisdom, Wealth, and Wallop.

In every setting, people bring different abilities, skills, and gifts to the table. In the context of boards, members embody each “W” to a greater or lesser degree. The ideal is a board member bringing each “W” to the full level of their ability. Let’s take a closer look.

The First W: “Want to”

Quite simply, the first W asks whether board members “want to” be involved with your organization. Do they attend and enthusiastically participate in meetings? Do they contribute financially at least once a year? Do they volunteer? All these are “want to” indicators.

It’s important to remember that “want to” can change over time. Jobs change, the nest empties, a family member develops an illness, or other causes may beckon. People have good intentions and don’t want to disappoint us, even when they no longer have the passion for your cause. (This makes a good case for term limits, too.)

These are just a few of the reasons a member’s engagement with your organization may change, so an objective and current assessment is essential.

The Second W: “Work”

This W has two parts. First, you need a quorum at board meetings, so showing up (or notifying in writing of an absence) is essential. Check.

However, there’s another side to “Work.” An executive director expressed her exasperation about an attorney who never attended board meetings. When asked if he ever helped her with any legal issues that came up, she replied, “Oh, yes! He’s always responsive to those kinds of questions and does everything he can to help us navigate the legal waters.”

This is where the other side of “Work” comes in. Some board members bring the Work “W” to the table even if they don’t show up to regular meetings. For example, the attorney offers pro bono counsel. The accountant is willing to be a sounding board for your bookkeeper. The business owner is generous with his expertise. Board members offer services, serve on committees, and follow through on assignments.

Despite the ED’s frustration of not seeing this board member at meetings, you can’t beat free legal advice, and that attorney is providing a special skill that no other board member can.

The Third W: “Wisdom”

Wisdom about how your community works (its culture, networks, the power structure) can be invaluable to your organization. The executive director whose board members truly understand the community gets things done! Does the member offer sound and insightful advice based on their knowledge and experience? If so, your board member is sharing the Wisdom “W.”

Wise board members are an invaluable resource in your constant quest to remain relevant. But how can you find them? Here are a few guiding steps:

  1. Define a “wise board member” for your organization. What special knowledge will be most helpful? If you are unsure, ask board and staff to help answer this question.
  2. Ask board members to suggest the names of prospective board members. (A nominating committee can be a huge help here.)
  3. A wise board member who can’t or won’t share their wisdom is indicative of a poor fit, so have a conversation with prospective board members before asking them to join the board. Do they seem interested in your mission? Pose real questions about the community. Are they willing to share their wisdom, guidance, and understanding freely? If so, you may have found a wise prospective board member.

It’s also important to engage the wisdom of current board members. Use these tips to really harness the power of who you’ve already got:

  1. Use committees that meet outside board meetings. The specific focus areas determined by the committee offer an opportunity for members to give advice and share their wisdom.
  2. Build “wisdom-sharing time” into every board meeting agenda. Pose questions and allow time for discussion. Consider a consent agenda. This is a great way to create time for meaningful conversation and quickly dispense with items that don’t require valuable meeting time.
  3. As leaders, be transparent about what you don’t know… and ask questions. Far from being an admission of inadequacy, it is an invitation for others to share their wisdom to strengthen your organization and its ability to fulfill your mission.

The Fourth W: “Wealth”

“Board giving is more positively correlated with overall
fundraising success than any other single factor.”
– Giving USA’s “Skin in the Game: The Importance of Board Giving”

The fourth W is easy to measure. If board members are giving money annually, the fourth W is rock solid. There are some considerations that will help you get even more out of this W:

  • Board members effectively tell your story and invite others to give.
  • They participate in fundraising and friend-raising efforts.
  • Each board member generously contributes annually to your organization appropriate to their ability.

Many organizations fail to drill down to the meaning of “appropriate to their ability.” On that topic, here are a few things to consider:

  • Is your organization in the board member’s Top 3 giving priorities?
  • Is each member of your board in “The 1% Club” (donating one percent of their annual income to your organization)?
  • Are you included as part of board members’ estate planning?

Giving money and leveraging relationships that lead to donations are two sides of the same coin. Here are some ways your board members can – and should – do both:

  • Participate in a major donor cultivation program.
  • Host (or participate) in an annual reception (either at the board member’s home or virtually) that highlights your organization to potential new donors.
  • Make three to five (3-5) face to face solicitations per year, accompanied by a representative of the nonprofit.
  • Write thank you notes, make calls, or send emails to show appreciation to donors.

Though some boards downplay the fundraising aspect, each board member must be an active participant to ensure the financial health of the institution. Boards that waffle on this target are usually the ones which fall short of their fundraising and leadership goals.

If Board Members Aren’t Giving

Board members may not give for a variety of reasons: they might not understand why their contribution is necessary; they may feel that compared to major gifts, donations from board members are inconsequential; or perhaps they’ve just never been asked.

If board giving is not a precondition of membership, some leaders feel uncomfortable broaching the topic and may avoid asking out of embarrassment. They don’t want to pressure fellow board members or stretch them beyond their capacity. While on the surface this seems logical, in fact, it’s the opposite: never, ever decide for a board member (or any donor!) how much or how often he/she can comfortably contribute. They know their financial situation better than you do, so allow them the freedom to surprise you!

Others feel that contributing their time is sufficient and a donation isn’t necessary. While time is valuable, board giving of actual dollars is important to the financial health of nonprofits and creates – and reinforces – a culture of giving unattainable by volunteering alone.

An important corollary: grant makers often ask about 100% board giving as a prerequisite for funding. Why should a major funder or granting agency give when its own board doesn’t believe enough in the organization to give?

The most common reason for individuals not giving is that they simply have not been asked. Leadership’s duty is to make a personal ask to each board member. The personal ask yields a greater return than an impersonal direct mail or email request. Within the conversation, leadership should articulate the organization’s needs and mission and clearly explain both the financial challenges and opportunities, and the practical and inspirational function of the board member’s gift.

The Final W: “Wallop”

A board member with “Wallop” multiplies his/her impact on the organization, the people it serves and the community. “Wallop” is really just influence. Are your board members people of influence?

You will know if they make connections in the community, bringing people together and bringing issues to their attention. Their many friends, associates, and family members look to them for their opinion or advice. They “open doors,” and generally act as visible and effective advocates on behalf of your organization.

John Maxwell said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” At Arthur Alley, we like to add, “And everything moves forward on relationships.” Board members with “Wallop” have, cultivate, and maximize relationships for good. They seize the opportunity to appropriately influence others on behalf of your organization. These people make things happen.

You want someone with Wallop to tell your nonprofit’s story, and tell it often: to friends and family, to religious and civic groups; to work colleagues; on social media platforms, to invite others to come see the good work of your organization, to the business professional sitting next to them on the plane… in fact, every opportunity they get!

A board member with wallop can bump the seismic needle through the combination of association and reputation. Not only do they have a wide social network, but because of their authenticity and integrity, coupled with their wisdom and wealth – people want to be in their network.

Wallop = Influence + Integrity

When someone gets a letter from you as the executive Director, very often, they look at that left margin to see what kind of corporate wallop your board has. (That’s why we put their names on our letterhead, isn’t it?) What they are looking for is the “aggregate influence” of your board. And that’s why it’s important for you to assess whether your individual board members or your board as a team is in possession of… wallop and influence.

Remember, influence is not always “income.” Sometimes, influence is “intelligence.” Or “intuition.” Or “information.” Or “insistence.” Or perhaps “integrity.” Other times, influence is “inspiration.”

Putting the 5 W’s Into Practice

Now that you know the 5 W’s, how can you use them to make your board even stronger?

Arthur Alley suggests starting with a confidential evaluation that measures where each member stands in relation to the Five W’s of Board Membership.

Arthur Alley’s Board Evaluation Toolkit outlines a simple assessment process that applies a numeric value to each characteristic and tabulates the results to give you a snapshot of your board as individuals and as a group.

From here, set a strategy with SMART goals to shore up whichever “W” needs work.