Answers to the typical, very typical question "who are the members of the board of directors?" are many and varied.
I don't want to mention them all, but one of the answers you hear specifies the provenance of the directors rather than actually identifying them.
We have often observed a sort of reticence in describing how the members of the board of directors have been selected, as if there had to be some a priori justification.
This post isn't going to look at boards that "work" - that will be for another occasion - but, on the contrary, at the peculiarities that lead boards to stagnate.
We can typify some of the cases we have encountered most frequently:
- Directors who are friends of the "chair".
This is typical of organisations with an "historic" chair who often performs the work of the entire board almost on their own (by choice in some cases).
In these organisations, the chair usually asks his/her contacts, generally during the renewal of the board, to do him/her the favour (!) of standing for election, because otherwise it would be difficult to find anyone willing to be a director.
The friends often agree, thinking that what is involved is signing the minutes every so often. Because they believe in the cause, of course, but they're always very busy.
So the chair carries on working alone. With all the constraints this places on the development of the organisation.
- Directors who are political appointments, usually in organisations whose articles of association envisage the presence of representatives of authorities and/or institutions in the governing body.
In these cases, the directors often have very little or no idea not only about the mission, but more generally about what a non-profit organisation is and how it operates - they tend to refer to a general idea of "people who do good" that held sway several decades ago.
The same thing applies: either you manage to get them seriously on board or they will be uninfluential (in the best-case hypothesis) for the purposes of the organisation’s strategic development.
- "Technical" directors, who are usually experts in their own field, but sometimes have a low propensity for the relational approach inherent in fundraising. Above all, they are often unfamiliar with the non-profit world in the "contemporary" meaning of the word.
- "Internal" directors, who often tend to reproduce the organisation’s hierarchical structure, and sometimes turn themselves into mere "walk-ons".
We could go on, but what we want to highlight is the missing element in all the above strategies – or pseudo-strategies – for selecting directors.
In other words:
What is the criterion used to recruit a director?
What is it that makes one person potentially more suitable than another to hold a particular position?
In our experience, there are basically three criteria involved in the recruitment of a (potential) good director – actually, there's a fourth criterion, concerned with natural empathy, but we'll look at that separately:
- competence, meaning the specific competence - where necessary, which is almost always - connected with the cause;
- the link, the familiarity with the mission in terms of the person's interest in it;
- commitment, that is, the time that can be dedicated to the organisation in relation to its needs (to be defined).
Let's look at each one in greater detail.
Is competence, meaning knowledge and expertise relating to the mission, or at least to the sector in which the organisation operates, really necessary, in all cases?
In our opinion, the answer is yes.
With a few qualifications, which we can illustrate with an example taken from personal experience.
During the summer of 2016, I was told about a recruitment call at the International Advisory Panel of Rogare, a research centre former associated with the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy at Plymouth University, in the U.K.
I have always worked both in Italy and abroad, and one of my interests has always been comparative analysis of what is known as pro-social behaviour: study of the social, cultural and economic factors that, in different countries, determine attention to the Voluntary Sector and to social causes (and cultural, environmental causes, etc.).
What I found interesting was the recruitment procedure, which in Italy is still unheard of with regard to boards of directors.
I had to send a curriculum vitae, write a short biography illustrating the main features of my Italian and international consultancy work, and explain why I was interested in being considered as a board member.
I had to read a 5-page document describing the role and responsibilities of each member, the eligibility criteria, the duties of each member with regard to engagement with and promotion of the mission, the frequency and organisation of meetings (the board is an international body whose members are located around the world).
I filled out a form in which I described the type of work I would undertake to perform as a board member, over a three-year period (the term of office), specifying my contribution and the "difference" I could make within the Panel.
Presenting myself as a candidate meant taking on a commitment in an informed manner, reading – beforehand - what I should expect and what I would be asked to contribute, reflecting on how I could produce an impact on the Centre's mission.
In my work outside Italy, I often read material of this type in the application packs for the role of board member. And I find it a serious and, all told, natural approach, which enables you to make an assessment a priori and also ex post, with regard to the commitment (which is quite different to a personal assessment, and a source of stimuli and professional growth).
And in Italy?
To date - and I should be happy to be contradicted - I have not seen a structured approach of this type.
Countless board members work with enthusiasm, devoting time and energy, focusing on the development of the mission, and are sincerely and deeply interested in Voluntary Sector questions, in development opportunities, in the complexity and the hybrid forms that this can take today.
Countless others, however, who occupy seats on boards have only a very vague idea about the non-profit sector and its characteristics, about why profit and non-profit are two different worlds that talk to one another (they have to), but take different approaches, about the reasons why a person decides to work in one sector rather than another (without there being a hierarchy between the two, they "simply" respond to naturally different approaches).
And in most cases, this lack of competence is reflected in the results, which are often unexceptional (in the negative sense of the word) and sometimes inadequate.
How can this be resolved?
One idea could be to follow the example described above. With differing degrees of complexity, building a clear idea of the competences needed by the board members means sitting down and drawing up a list of these competences, beginning with the tasks the future directors will be required to take on - definition of the role, once again.
Is the organisation involved in scientific research on a particular pathology? A physician (technical competence), a patient or a family member ("practical" experience) might be the ideal choice to consider for the development of projects.
Or perhaps the organisation needs to formulate a development strategy. Perhaps someone who already has some experience in this area and is interested in the mission, or someone with competences and experience in fundraising or project management might be useful.
A great many examples could be provided.
The essential starting point, however, must always be the same: answering the question "what is the organisation's idea of the future" and "who is the best person to take charge of the path towards the future?". Because, inevitably, answering these questions makes it possible to identify the characteristics of the most suitable candidates.