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The 4 W’s: Building A Better Board

Once, the saying “give, get, or get off” was in vogue. While members of most nonprofit boards should be prepared to provide philanthropic support, this saying has fallen out of favor. Why? Certainly, it is harsh. It also fails to convey all the other traits sought in outstanding board members.

Board members, individually, may be highly skilled in an essential arena such as financial analysis, government relations or even fundraising. But if they aren’t team players, the disruption they create will eclipse their contributions. Cooperation and collegiality are the lubricants that unify individual board members’ talents into a team greater than the sum of its parts. And, as a whole, the board should seek to reflect the diversity of the community it serves.

Duties such as “loyalty,” “care,” “obedience” or “manage accounts” are the legal obligations assigned to nonprofit board members by most secretaries of state. Often their offices provide helpful guides like this from the Ohio Attorney General. These duties are a starting point but only a minimum standard of compliance, not the recipe for outstanding governance.

A better understanding of board members’ responsibilities is conveyed by “w”: effective boards are comprised of diverse members who bring a balance of work, wisdom and wealth. To these responsibilities add “wit” because a board that enjoys working together is more likely to be fruitful. On a high-functioning board, each board member brings one or two of these traits (plus “wit,” which is a proxy for cultural fit). The board as a whole is comprised of a balance of these traits because an imbalance in any one area weakens the board’s ability to ensure an effective organization. What does each mean?


Board members should contribute their expertise. A CPA might serve on the finance committee. A knowledgeable civic leader might bring experience to a governance committee. Those with broad social networks help to plan a successful gala. And board service may also channel their skills in ways that spur professional and intellectual growth, too.

Specialized nonprofit organizations call for unique membership. Medical professionals provide insights for healthcare institutions, teachers help guide an educational nonprofit, and movement builders offer a firm foundation for a social change organization. This work is performed willingly—not seen as “résumé-padding” or a sales opportunity.

Some boards will call for a direct connection to the mission: parents on an independent school’s board or patients of a Federally Qualified Health Center. It’s important that these board members carefully separate what’s best for themselves (or their child) from the overall needs of all the organization’s constituents.


Wisdom is most often called for in board and committee meetings. Wise board members come prepared, not opening the board packet and skimming the agenda on the way to the meeting. They listen carefully, ask good questions and dispense advice sparingly. They avoid assigning specific tasks to staff members—that’s the CEO’s job. Boards should be composed of members with diverse perspectives and experiences, which can occasionally lead to differences of opinion. But once consensus is reached or a vote is taken, wise board members understand the matter is settled and not to be re-adjudicated at future meetings or—worse—in the community.

The exercise of good judgment extends to board members’ relationships in the community. They serve as the eyes and ears of the nonprofit organization, providing critical intelligence to leadership. They are advocates, building a network of enthusiastic allies. And they are loyal, endorsing the organization’s programs, policies and strategic decisions unequivocally.


Like any business, nonprofits run on financial capital and expect board members to help provide it. Depending on the type of nonprofit, contributed revenue can pay essential day-to-day operating expenses or may provide the “margin of excellence.” Board service asks all trustees to contribute what they can, with the expectation that some board members will have greater access to assets. A board that is “all work, no wealth” will struggle to fund its mission. As enviable as a board that is all and only “wealth” may seem, the inevitable clash of egos can lead to dysfunction in the board room and a dearth of strategic insight for staff.

Work, wisdom and wealth together become an acknowledged recipe for effective governance. But one quality is missing: the cultural fit that brings out the best in a trustee. In service to alliteration, this quality is dubbed “wit.”


Wit is exhibited when board meetings are lively, stimulating gatherings that members want to attend. Wit reveals a culture of inquiry where board members’ questions are rooted in a desire to learn and understand. Board members enthusiastically fill tables at a gala, build connections in the community and support the chief executive. More than a decade ago, Peter Drucker quipped “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A board member who disrupts culture isn’t worth any amount of work, wisdom or wealth that he or she may provide. Instead, the other qualities are amplified when board members embrace a purpose-driven culture, which BoardSource describes as one focused on commitment, equity and respect for those impacted by the work.

Greater board diversity brings greater advancement to organizations and should be a focus for stakeholders. Boards are composed of individuals. Yet, no single board member wields authority. It is only when the board works in unison that it has the authority to govern. When that unity is achieved through a balance of work, wisdom, wealth and wit, the board has the potential to be greater than the sum of its individual members and to power an organization to even greater impact.

This article was originally published on on March 29, 2023. Click here to read the original article.

Laura MacDonald has earned a national reputation for her dedication to the nonprofit sector. She is a Certified Fund-Raising Executive (CFRE) with decades of experience in nonprofit leadership, fundraising, and philanthropy. In 1999, she established Benefactor Group to serve the needs of those who serve the common good.

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