Why Passion Isn’t Enough for Your Board of Governance

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Passion simply isn’t good enough for a fruitful board of directors. This may come as a surprise to some, but Chris Grundner has some compelling points that suggest otherwise.

Someone on your board could be extremely passionate about your cause, but terrible with numbers. Logically, this person would not make a great treasurer for your organization. Yet sometimes, positions are simply delegated to whoever is passionate for the cause.

I first encountered Grundner via his TedTalk. Grundner was the senior VP of JPMorgan Chase & Co. when he lost his wife to a brain tumor. He quickly changed gears and founded the Kelly Heinz-Grundner Brain Tumor Foundation and now serves as the president and CEO of the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement (DANA).

When starting a nonprofit, the easy thing to do is to fill seats on your board with the “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality. But Grundner decided that they shouldn’t compromise. Setting the bar high in your organization and bringing people in who are skills-driven is key.

Having passionate members isn’t a bad thing, it just isn’t the only ingredient in the recipe of an awesome board. For example, Grundner said one of his board members didn’t have a personal tie to brain cancer, but would run through a wall for Grundner as his executive director and was great with numbers. He became invaluable to the organization through financial operations because of his skill set, but didn’t necessarily have an inherent connection to the cause.

Through his experience, Grundner developed a pyramid of four nonprofit board of governance levels.


Bottom Rung — Passion

Grundner said this is “essential for board members to have, but it’s not everything.” Passion sets up the basis for solid governance. He specified that in some cases—like with his board member’s experience—the first rung of the pyramid can sometimes be skipped.

Second Rung — Standards

Setting up best practices, job descriptions and term limits are key components to stable leadership. The board chair sets the standards and conveys the expectations to everyone accordingly. The individual board members are responsible for holding each other accountable to those standards. It is also vital that the board chair and executive director follow the same standards.

Third Rung — Diversity in Skill Sets and Perspective

Board meetings may go quickly with like-minded people, but the successful boards are the ones that “create a culture of constructive conflict.” Grundner said the most successful boards “infuse purposeful disruption, but are mission-based and constituency-driven.”

Top Rung — Transcendent Leadership

Change happens whether you’re expecting it or not. To ensure success during transitional periods, the best thing you can do is be prepared. Grundner said you can have people in the wings as potential board members. You can also get current board members prepared for more responsibility to avoid derailment on your board.

Sometimes though, people’s situations change. Grundner suggested setting up a conversation at least once a year with each member of the board to see how things are going for them and have them sign an annual commitment form that lays out your expectations of them.

On a for-profit board, if a member was hindering their profits, they would ultimately be asked to leave. Grundner said it shouldn’t be any different on a nonprofit board when someone hinders the advancement of the mission.

The best way for nonprofits to raise the bar is by taking their board of governance seriously. Recruit and cultivate skills-driven members who put the mission first. Having members keep each other accountable by challenging and engaging one another will keep the standards in line in board operations.

Grundner concluded his advice by reminding us of the importance of being “all in.” If you’re considering joining a board, include your family in your membership of a board, understand what’s expected of you and make a financial contribution to your organization to get some skin in the game.


Nick Small

With specialties in content strategy and creation, social media engagement and digital marketing optimization, Nick brings a depth of experience in nonprofit marketing. He’s also helped hundreds of nonprofits with their online presence to improve donor retention and attract new audiences, and he still has time for a good glass of whiskey, round of golf or new adventure.

May 20, 2015

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