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What’s the best advice on name-only board members?

Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, Notes on Nonprofits


Should your nonprofit allow name-only board members?

A reader asked me to address the issue of name-only board members. These are people elected to a board who do not actively participate but remain a director for various reasons.

Name-only board members are sometimes influential community members, CEOs of leading companies, major stakeholders, elected officials, or people with access to others whose support is seen as critical to the nonprofit’s success. These people are sometimes recruited to the board with full agreement they will not actively participate in meetings or the regular work of the board.

More often, there is no specific agreement they won’t fully participate but they don’t. This means they rarely, if ever, attend board meetings, participate in planning, committees, or board-led initiatives such
as fundraising.

I know of one organization where the name-only board member did not know they were still on the board!

Influence and resentment

Boards do this because they believe their endorsement of the organization could help regardless of their involvement. They also believe the board member will make a significant financial contribution, influence others to do the same, and/or open doors to funding or power that has previously been unattainable for the organization.

The biggest pitfall when a nonprofit allows name-only board members is that other directors who are meeting agreed-upon board expectations will resent the inactive member. This can result in a loss of productivity and collegiality within the board and cause high-performing directors to resign.

In a blog about avoiding what he calls “letterhead board members”, author and speaker Doug Eadie said, “non-participating board members have a demoralizing impact on even the best of boards.”

I have been told by countless philanthropists that they recognize the technique of being extended a board invitation in exchange for a significant gift or grant. 

Commitment to cause

Philanthropists want to be valued for who they are as people. When they agree to serve, it is because they support the mission and trust the leadership of the organization to value them for more than their checkbook.

If they are also high performing board members, they will look for and expect much more than a big name on the roster to determine if they want to accept an invitation to serve on a board.

Political leaders or people looking to build their professional resume should be expected to work hard and contribute as much as everyone else. Otherwise, they are using your nonprofit for their own
personal gain without an equal commitment of work and productivity.

Directors who are actively engaged in and committed to the board’s work, exhibit the following behaviors:

Attend all or most of scheduled board meetings.

Read the board packet in advance and arrive ready to participate.

  • Notify the Chair in advance when they are unable to attend and follow-up after the meeting to determine what they missed and where to act.
  • Respond to calls or emails and are accessible when needed.
  • Available and willing to meet with the Board Chair or ED to discuss key issues.
  • Actively participate in a standing committee.
  • Participate in strategic planning and board education activities.
  • Make a meaningful gift on an annual basis.
  • Know and understand the organization’s services and support the CEO.
  • Participate in and actively support fundraising activities.
  • Serve as an advocate of the organization.

Alternative strategies

Consider these alternatives to name-only board members:

Invite the influencer to serve on an ad hoc committee or task force where their involvement can produce positive results in a short time frame without the requirements of board service.

Create an advisory council that convenes at least once a year to help board members address current challenges or provide an external view of threats, opportunities, and trends that may impact the organization. Please refer to my previous columns on the use and role of advisory councils and emeritus boards.

Has this been an issue for your nonprofit and if so, how was it addressed?

Your communication with me is always confidential.

Notes on Nonprofits is a column in the Tallahassee Democrat produced by Alyce Lee Stansbury, CFRE, President of Stansbury Consulting, and includes resources, responses to reader questions, guest columns, and timeless topics. This column first appeared on Sunday, July 10, 2022. Please send your comments and questions.

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