Everything I needed to know about being a good board member, I learned in high school

Note: For my 35th high school reunion, a group of us were asked to present mini “TED” talks related to our work. I loved hearing from people I think of as teenagers (53 now!) discuss their lives, including a classmate who is Commissioner of Water Management for Chicago, a visionary who started the nonprofit  Mission Animal Hospital, and classmates who shared their unique and, at times, hilarious career adventures.  No matter your feelings about high school, there is power in seeing those from your childhood all grown up.

A few people asked me for a copy of my talk on how to be a good non-profit board member, so I thought I’d write a version as a blog post. I’d like to thank Glenn Miller, Nina Hale, Dylan Hicks, and Missy Staples Thompson for their brainstorming ideas. Most importantly, these thoughts honor my amazing father, Roger Hale, who inspires me everyday with his community board service.


We learned everything we needed to know about being a good board member in high school.

My perspective on this topic comes from many angles. Early in my career I worked in development departments and was the staff liaison to the board; later, I served on boards working in the arenas of public health, the environment, and the arts. I was an executive director for eight years and reported to the board. I’m currently serving as interim executive director of Cantus and find myself in a position of board guidance and collaboration.

1.     You are asked to join a board. Your first step is to decide if the organization is a good fit for you. Consider the following:

a.    Do you have the same values as the organization?

b.    Are you clear on the organization’s value proposition? How do they expect to accomplish their mission?

c.     Does it work with your life geographically?  Is your passion for this organization worth battling a cross-town – or cross-country –  commute?

d.    What will it cost you? – What are the giving expectations?

e.    Why do they want you to join? Are you a subject area expert, known for generosity, a financial wiz? Be clear on what value they expect you to bring. If they look at you as a checkbook but not a contributor, decline the board invitation and relish the role of major donor.

2.     Show up for class.  I’ve found this one is actually the most challenging because time is our most precious commodity. We travel, watch elders, guide children, work, and are just relentlessly busy. But you cannot really participate in a useful and meaningful manner if you don’t show up for “class.”

3.     Do your homework and hand it in!  You might be able to bluff your way through class but eventually your teacher will know you’ve not done your homework.

a.    Read the board prep materials.

b.    Follow social media to understand the programs and emerging issues.

c.     Also, your nonprofit staff will love you forever if you respond quickly to emails, rsvps, and pledge requests.

4.     Raise your hand and ask questions. We all know the best learning happens from dialog and questioning.

a.    The best board members ask a lot of questions. Don’t worry about feeling stupid. It is your role to understand, question, and alert others if you think something is not adding up.

b.    By asking questions you learn what is already being done. Often explosive situations could have been avoided if board members had raised their hands earlier and more often.

c.     A good teacher loves questions because she gets to expand on her knowledge and knows you are paying attention. Likewise, a competent executive director appreciates your interest and will not feel threatened by inquiry. If you sense defensiveness, dive deeper or ask for an executive session of the board.

5.     Participate in extra-curriculars.  During high school we had some of our most memorable experiences in theater, choir, debate, and sports. Likewise, boards offer life-enhancing opportunities which become richer as you get more engaged.

a.    Go to those art openings and readings.

b.    Serve at the soup kitchen.

c.     Walk the dogs at the humane society and volunteer for the fundraiser.

6.     Get to know your classmates and try not to just hang out in your clique. The best boards bring together a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. Make an effort to get to know someone on the board who is very different from yourself. This is a pathway into a new perspective and will broaden your life. 

7.     Cheer for your team.  As board members, you have the opportunity to be passionate ambassadors for your cause.  Tell others, link on social media to positive articles, be on the lookout for funding opportunities or participants.

8.     Respect your teachers, lunch staff, janitors, and coaches. Nonprofit employees are an extraordinary group of people. They’ve made a choice to have a career in service and often sacrifice financial gain. Respect them and never treat them as underlings.  

a.    Never pull into staff parking spots unless you’ve been invited to do so. Would your parents park in the Principal’s spot for school conferences?

9.     Understand the expectations to get an “A”. To do well in high school you have to understand the grading criteria. The same is true for your board service. Is this a board that expects a certain financial commitment? Does it have a give or get? How many meetings, events, and fundraisers are you expected to attend?

a.    What do they expect from you?  

b.    Be clear on why they’ve asked you to join.

10.   Don’t get mono in your junior year. Boards will suck up as much time as you can give them but to be really effective you should be around for a while so pace yourself. Be a star but set boundaries to protect your precious time so you don’t burn out. Question a board that does not have term limits. If you love the organization, you can rotate back or move to committee work.

There is so much need and you are a talented bunch (despite what you did in high school).  Go out and make a difference. The world needs you.

This talk was delivered at the The Blake School’s 35th reunion for the class of 1981.