Be Curious: How To Be
A Successful Nonprofit Board Director

By Josephine Victoria Yam, J.D., LLM.
2017 November 20

A CEO of a large nonprofit asked: “Can B3 match our nonprofit board with business people who don’t come in thinking that nonprofits are inefficient"?

This is a question that many nonprofit CEOs ask us. Some nonprofit board directors apparently believe their business experiences alone can "fix a nonprofit’s inefficiencies”.

Why? This stems from the erroneous notion that businesses are more efficient than nonprofits. The Stanford Social Innovation Review article “How to Succeed on a Nonprofit Board” explains the stereotypical belief that businesses focus on being efficient to achieve shareholder value. But because nonprofits focus on social value --- which is hard to measure --- they don’t have to focus on being efficient.

Thus, many business people feel overqualified for their nonprofit board roles. They become less engaged in a nonprofit’s mission. They lack curiosity about what they can actually do to help a nonprofit achieve more impact. In other words, they “might assume they don’t need to give their full attention to do a good job”.

This lack of curiosity is fatal to becoming a successful nonprofit director. Why? Because nonprofits are often more complex to operate than businesses. Unlike for-profit business organizations, nonprofits do more with less resources. They have amorphous goals that are difficult to measure. They get things done through consensus building. (I discuss this in my blog “Three Pointers to Remember When Serving on Nonprofit Boards”).

Thus, all nonprofit board directors need to be fully engaged and curious. They need to bring the whole range of expertise, experiences and networks they have to the nonprofits they serve.

The Stanford article outlines five ways on how board directors can be curious:

 
Curious about impact - Is our nonprofit making a difference to solve a problem in the community? How can the nonprofit increase its social impact?
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Curious about context - How does our nonprofit compare to competing nonprofits? What is our nonprofit’s unique value proposition that would make our beneficiaries choose us instead?
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Curious about money - Where does our nonprofit funding come from and where does it go each year? Why do donors and grantors give money to our nonprofit?
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Curious about people - Who are our nonprofit’s stakeholders? How can we best address their needs, hopes and aspirations?
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Curious about the board - What diverse perspectives are present in the board? Does our board have all the perspectives of the beneficiaries we serve?
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Serving on a nonprofit board is a meaningful journey. To get the most of out of this journey, board directors must always be curious.

As governance expert Alice Korngold advises:

“Although businesspeople have valuable talents to offer, they are entering a new realm, with its own culture, language, and challenges, when they volunteer on a nonprofit board. [They] need to approach this new role with openness and humility, be prepared to learn, and then figure out how to use their business skills to advance the organization.”

Related Blog Posts

Trudeau’s ‘Because it’s 2015!’ response to why his new cabinet was half-female was iconic and memorable, even hopeful and encouraging.

So it was deeply disappointing to read the BoardSource 2017 Report released yesterday on its particular findings on nonprofit board diversity. Yes, it’s 2017 and there’s still no diversity in nonprofit boards. After two years since its last national survey, nonprofit boards are still painfully lacking in diversity.

Serving on a nonprofit board is not only a meaningful way to give back to the community, it is also a powerful way to build valuable leadership experience. This is one of the most compelling reasons why our corporate clients have implemented our B3 Board Matching and Training Programs in their organizations.

While enhancing their Corporate Social Responsibility and Brand strategies, many large corporations and law firms consider our programs as solidly supporting their HR talent strategy to develop their high-potential employees. After all, talent development is a top priority in most leading organizations in Canada.

Hundreds of thousands of highly-skilled professionals volunteer their time, talents and treasures in nonprofit boards around the country . And rightly so. They want to give back to society. They are passionate about the mission and vision of the nonprofits they serve. They are keen to contribute their strategic expertise to help nonprofits achieve their goals - whether their expertise is law, accounting, IT, human resources, strategic planning, marketing and communications. Through volunteering, they develop a strong sense of personal gratification for doing good.

Meet Our Partners

  • As we celebrate the 150th birthday of Canada with the 150Alliance, we are proud to contribute to a national narrative that weaves inspiring stories of how businesses and nonprofits are working side by side through our B3 Board Matching & Training Programs.

  • Alberta's Promise operates within the Government of Alberta’s Department of Human Services. With over 1,800 business, nonprofit and community partners, they help businesses connect with non-profits across Alberta to make meaningful contributions that benefit children and youth ages 0 to 24.

  • The Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations is a member-based nonprofit organization founded in 2002 in Edmonton, AB. They serve the nonprofit and charitable organizations in the Alberta Capital Region.

  • The Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) is the provincial network for the approximately 55,000 nonprofit organizations across Ontario. As a 7,000-strong provincial network, with a volunteer base of 300 sector leaders, ONN brings the diverse voices of the sector to government, funders and business to create and influence systemic change.

  • For over 62 years, Propellus has been supporting volunteers and volunteerism within the communities of Calgary. It strongly believes that volunteering is essential to creating and sustaining healthy, supportive and connected communities.

  • The Sustainability Network is a national organization that works with environmental nonprofits to make them more effective and efficient. Their mission is to enrich environmental leaders and nonprofit organizations so that they can help us all achieve sustainability.

  • Founded in 1943, Vantage Point delivers learning opportunities focused on governance, leadership, planning and people engagement for new and seasoned sector leaders, board directors and managers, aimed at advancing not-for-profit leadership.

  • Women Get On Board is a leading member-based company that connects, promotes and empowers women to corporate boards. They do this through an engaged community of women and men in Canada committed to advancing gender diversity in the boardroom.

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