Let’s start by making the following general assumption about nonprofit board members. They are professionals. It’s a lot harder to make a general assumption about a professional. There are countless types of professionals, so that means there are countless variations on the make up of a nonprofit board. A nonprofit board is a different animal, unlike say the board of an association for example. An association board is made up of people who share similarities, so everyone on the board is a pharmacist or a carpenter or they all belong to the same country club, that sort of thing. Because of these commonalities, they are essentially boards of peers. On the flip side, the only thing that really connects a nonprofit board is a shared belief in the mission of the organization it serves. While that’s a fantastic starting point, it might not be enough to form an effective board. Here’s where a little peer pressure can be a good thing.
The Benefits of Friendly Competition
The notion of competition isn’t foreign to professionals. A professional becomes proficient at their job by at the very least competing with themselves to learn, and improve, but also by competing with others internally for jobs and projects, and externally in the form of direct competitors within their professional space. And while some may see competition as a blood sport, most people understand that in moderation, competition is a powerful tool. So how can competition help a nonprofit board?
Competition within the context of a nonprofit board isn’t equal. If Professional A has lots of money and makes a large contribution, that doesn’t automatically mean all the other board members are going to whip out their check books and match dollars. Nonprofit board members are not peers. They have different jobs, different, skills, different resources. But outside of the boardroom, they all have their respective peer groups, and that’s where the competition/peer pressure kicks in.
If we learn that people with similar interests, skills and resources are doing amazing things, then darn it, we want to do amazing things too. And we want to do them, well, even more amazing. We’re social. We’re competitive. We influence and are influenced. If Professional A mentioned above was on the fence about writing that fat check, but heard that a respected peer made a contribution, that could serve as the catalyst to act.
Whether subtly or overtly, board members are expected to use their influence within their peer groups as part of their duty to serve their organization. Helping establish, foster and track expectations (from financial contributions to meeting attendance) as a required part of service can go a long way toward improving board member engagement.