What does it actually mean to show up as a “good” board member?
Farra Trompeter, co-director, chats with Brooke Richie-Babbage, founder and CEO of Bending Arc, and the host of The Nonprofit Mastermind Podcast, about what they find meaningful about board service and the benefits of having board members who are passionate and can be cheerleaders, ambassadors, and thought partners.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to The Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and worker-owner at Big Duck. Today we’re going to talk about “What does it really mean to show up as a ‘good’ board member?” And that’s good in quotes. We’re going to break down what we mean by that and why we’re even putting it in quotes with our guest, Brooke Richie-Babbage. I got to meet Brooke through some training she actually did with our founder, Sarah, including a webinar in June 2020, which was all about strengthening the connection between branding and fundraising. And you can access the transcript and recording of that on our website at bigduck.com/insights. Go to the videos section, you’ll find that and so much more. But let me tell you about Brooke, and we’ll get into today’s conversation.
Farra Trompeter: Brooke Richie-Babbage, who uses she/her pronouns, helps nonprofit founders and leaders launch, scale, and lead their organizations with more clarity and confidence and without overwhelm. Brooke is a lawyer-turned-nonprofit founder-turned-strategist and coach. She’s worn many hats, as we say. She is the founder and CEO of Bending Arc and the host of The Nonprofit Mastermind Podcast, which has over 100 episodes available about how to launch, build, and lead a nonprofit that changes the world. Brooke also describes herself as an unapologetic strategy geek, 100% Virgo and INFJ, self-possessed template queen, and an unabashed believer in the power of abundance to help us create true, positive impact in our world. Not to mention, she and I also share a love of wine, cheese, and chocolate. Brooke, welcome to the show.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Who doesn’t love wine, cheese, and chocolate? It’s great to be here, Farra.
Farra Trompeter: I did meet someone recently who doesn’t love chocolate, and it took me a few minutes to be able to listen to the rest of the conversation.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: You know, I tell people “Don’t admit that in public.”
Farra Trompeter: No.
Farra Trompeter: Brooke, you and I have actually both been board members and board officers for several different organizations. In fact, Big Duck, when it became a worker-owned cooperative, now has a board, and I’m a member of Big Duck’s Board. And I’m just curious, what do you personally find to be meaningful about board service?
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Well, boards for me have always been a way to have an impact beyond what I do for a living. I feel like I’ve been really lucky to be able to spend my professional life doing social justice work, but there are so many social justice issues that I care a lot about and there are ways of doing social justice work that I really believe in, and I can’t do them all. I’ve tried, but I can’t do them all. At least not at the same time. And so, board membership for me personally, has always been a way into being involved in issues and ways of work that I believe in and care a lot about, but can’t sort of dedicate professional space to.
Farra Trompeter: Thank you for sharing that. And I also appreciate the chance of being a nonprofit board member and getting a chance to be additive and both learn about a new issue and support an organization in a very different way with my time and sometimes my brain space on certain issues and my network. And I’m curious, just flipping it to a different part of the conversation, I know you also help organizations think about building board members and attracting board members.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Yeah.
Farra Trompeter: And what do organizations typically look for when they’re recruiting board members, and what should they be looking for if it’s not the same?
Brooke Richie-Babbage: I love that you asked both of those questions. So, what I typically see when I talk to organizations about what they’re looking for, and this is whether we’re talking explicitly about boards or just things that I sort of hear in passing. I hear often “access to money,” right? We need to find the unicorn board member who just either is very wealthy or knows lots of wealthy people. I hear big names like famous people. And I remember one of the first organizations I worked for out of law school that was a huge topic of discussion, just sort of on the leadership team, how can we get, there are like three movie stars, to join our board, right? So big names. And then the third is access to large networks, right? Who can we get on our board that knows a lot of people? And that’s a really common one.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: So, none of those things is obviously a bad thing to have on your board necessarily, but I think it’s really important almost to, like, think about the converse. They aren’t at all sufficient, right? They aren’t actually indicators of what makes good board members. And I think that a lot of board chairs, a lot of boards, a lot of executive directors, particularly the ones I work with, of smaller organizations, where it’s really the ED that’s doing a lot of the thinking and strategizing. They spend a lot of sleepless nights wondering where they’re going to find these rich, highly networked superstars, and the reality is these things don’t necessarily translate into a bigger network, more support for the organization, more access to other famous people. They just aren’t indicators of what we think they’re indicators of. And what I always tell the leaders that I work with is that you are looking for people who can be cheerleaders and ambassadors for your organization who are passionate about what you do and who want to roll up their sleeves and be your thought partner and be your co-strategist.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: You know, you asked at the beginning why I join boards. When I’m really passionate about something, I want to show up. I want to be available. I want to be a cheerleader. I want to tell people about this amazing organization that I’m connected to. And so when we’re looking for board members, that’s what you want. That is the indicator of a good board member. And sometimes that will come in a package of someone who has access to a large network or who has access to people who have wealth, but it doesn’t have to, right? Your best board members are people who care deeply and have the inclination and capacity to be cheerleaders, ambassadors, and thought partners.
Farra Trompeter: You know, one of the things I’ve also seen organizations get into these days is also look at how can they have representatives from the programs, from the people they’re serving, people with lived experience on their board, to bring in the perspective of really, truly, to your point, of being a thought partner of like, “Are we doing good work?”
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Absolutely.
Farra Trompeter: And you know, the famous movie star who’s really rich, or whoever, you know, they’re not going to be able to give you that information.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: That’s right. That’s right. I think there’s a lot of confusion about, I think understandably, about what role boards actually play. Like, what do boards do vis-a-vis, say, the executive director or the team, and that’s why I really like to focus on sort of cheerleading ambassadorship and thought partnership.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: I think one thing, not missing, but perhaps referred to secondarily in conversations about the role of boards, is accountability. That originally, the reason that the whole idea of boards came about had to do with being accountable to shareholders, right, and then we sort of shifted. I used to teach this so I get a little wonky about it, but, right, we took this sort of corporate structure and shifted it to the nonprofit space, you know, 120 years ago and just attached this idea of a governance board. The idea being that there has to be this part of the organization’s ecosystem that holds the leadership and this staff, the people executing the mission, accountable to the communities and the stakeholders, to the donors, where there’s sort of upstream stakeholders, and the constituents and clients, et cetera.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: So that role of accountability is lost if everyone on your board, they all look the same, if they all come from communities that have nothing to do with the work that you do, if there’s no balance of perspectives. And definitely, to your point, if there are no people that represent your issue, your work, the people in your community, that balance is super, super important. And that gets lost if, going back to your question, we only highlight people that have money, people that have influence, people that have, you know, C-suite positions and banks and corporations, then it’s assumed or presumed that the value that they’re bringing is so much more important than the role of accountability and representation that other types of board members would bring.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and similar to this, I know one of the things you and I were talking about as we prepared for this call is that we’ve also seen organizations talking about “diversifying their boards.”
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Yeah.
Farra Trompeter: And lots of different meanings to the word “diversifying” for the organization, but oftentimes, there are some organizations who are focusing on diversity as opposed to equity and inclusion.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Yeah.
Farra Trompeter: And so they’re not always really considering, “Will these new board members actually feel welcome? Will they stay? Will we value them? Will we take the time to incorporate them and onboard them in a way that will have them feel engaged and motivated to be a board member and have us actually really meaningfully have them participate?” And I’m just curious, have you seen organizations do this? Have you seen anyone get it right? What’s showing up for you around this “let’s diversify our board” conversation?
Brooke Richie-Babbage: So, I have seen organizations, I’m not going to say “get it right” because I think it’s a journey, right? I think it’s a process. And as soon as we tell ourselves we’ve gotten something right, then you know, everything explodes. What I have seen are organizations that have a genuine explicit commitment to getting this right, to working on this. And what the “this” is to your point, is inclusion and equity, right? Which are inextricably tied to diversity and all kinds of diversity, but when you actually are explicit about your commitment to equity and inclusion, in addition to diversity, it really pushes groups – and I’ve seen this in practice in some really amazing organizations – it really pushes the board to ask itself “What is our role vis-a-vis this organization and the community that we serve?” And if the board is honest and can have that sort of tough, messy conversation, then it pushes the organization to expand its definition of a “good” board member. That’s how you get to all kinds of diversity. There’s racial diversity, there’s class diversity, there’s representational diversity, there’s gender – all kinds of diversity.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: And then the next question is, “Okay, we have all of these diverse perspectives. If we’ve said that our role is ambassadorship, community accountability, et cetera, how do we make sure that all of the different perspectives are represented, are valued, have space in our meetings, it’s not always the same people talking. How do we work together in a way that respects where people are coming from and the way they spend their time and the external responsibilities they have,” right? You start to have richer, deeper conversations about how you work together and the culture that you’re building on your board when you are explicit about naming inclusion and equity as values for the board.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: There’s a really interesting concept that I learned about when I was doing social impact network work at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation called “Trust for Action.” And I really latched onto this definition. Actually, Adam Grant, who I also love, has a whole podcast about astronauts – which I will share with you, and you can include it in the links if you’d like – where he talks about this special version of trust. And when we talk about trust on a board as a foundation for equity and inclusion, usually people’s minds go to “Do, I like this person?,” right. Trust for liking. I always remember George Bush was elected because people like, “I like him, I’d have a beer with him,” right? Always a disaster when we just rely on that.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: What I love about this notion of “trust for action,” and I use this in my trainings with organizations and their boards, is that it’s a special kind of trust that is based on or rooted in an ability to work together towards a common goal. That’s it. “Do we share an understanding of our end goal of the North Star? Are we all equally committed to it, and do we all have a role to play in getting there that is recognized and valued?” And when those questions are asked and answered as a group and people believe “Yes, we’re all around this table for the same reason. Yes, we’re all working equally meaningfully and hard for this. Even if that looks like you’re making a $50 donation and I’m making a $5,000 donation, I know that we are each giving what we can, and I believe that we have a shared value,” right? You get to a truer, deeper operationalization of inclusion. So this idea of sort of “trust for action.” “How can we trust that we’re all working together towards the same North Star and work together?” is a really great framework, I think, for how to actually do inclusion. Like, what that actually looks like.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. That framework, everything you’re saying, the Adam Grant podcast. Definitely send it over, we will link to it in the show notes for the transcript on our website, and I certainly am eager to read it. So thank you for doing some education there.
Farra Trompeter: You know what, speaking of this idea of everyone having the same understanding of what we’re all doing here, I’ve seen the role of the board fluctuate based on an organization’s life cycle. Often, for example, a newer organization or a smaller organization, the board might be more hands-on, almost like an adjunct member of the staff. And for older organizations, larger organizations, the board tends to be more big picture, take on that role of advisor, and I’m just curious, have you seen any examples when an organization needs a governing board but its members act more like a working board or vice versa?
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Absolutely. I see this all the time, as I’m sure you have on boards you’ve been on. I think it happens most frequently in two situations. So the first is boards that are in transition, right? You talked about growth stages and a nonprofit board isn’t one thing, it’s not a monolith. It will evolve and change and what it looks like and what board members need to do and how they need to show up will change as the organization grows and evolves. So boards that are in transition moments, for example, younger organizations that are going from say a startup board to an early stage governance board, or organizations run by founders. I see this a lot, right? Where they’re used to working with their board almost like a team, and now they have people on the board who didn’t join just because of them, and they’re like, “Hey, what do we do?” So I see it in these moments of transition, making a shift from one type of board to a more grown-up board.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: I also see this in situations, and I think this is more common, where board members and executive directors are just unclear about what board members are supposed to do, right? What a board is and what the role is. Most board members, especially those who are new to being on grown-up boards, but most of just people who are professionals, we spend our time in our daily lives thinking and acting within one paradigm of leadership and engagement, right? So if you tell me to join a team and be active and engaged and a leader on that team, that means something in most spaces in my life. It means I’m hands-on. It means I’m helping to execute. I’m making decisions about how things are being run.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: So interestingly, on a nonprofit board showing up and being engaged in a governance capacity or an advisory capacity can look, in really important ways, different than it looks in our daily lives. And I hear this from board members a lot. They feel like they’re not doing the work, right, if their role is mostly advisory or thought partnership or being an ambassador, and so they either disengage because they’re like, “Well that’s not really meaningful. Like, you don’t need me to just, like, pick up the phone when you call.” Or they lean in more and they micromanage and they want to, like, co-decide staffing decisions. And so that lack of clarity, I think, is really, really common.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and I’ve seen both, exactly what you’ve said, either people completely just, you know, tune everything out or they just overly jump in and have the staff do all this work that just wastes time, is unproductive, is counter to actually accomplishing the mission.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: That’s right. “Let’s make work.”
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, exactly. Don’t make work for work’s sake. And I think everything you’re talking about is really this idea of just being clear.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Yes.
Farra Trompeter: And making sure people have shared expectations.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Yes, exactly. I think being really clear, you know, again, going back to this idea of the growth stages, being really clear about what the sort of milestones or benchmarks are of an effective board for that next phase of growth that you’re headed into. Get familiar with, you know, “What does a grown-up board look like? How do they work together? What are the roles? How do their committees work?” If your organization chooses to have them. They do not have to have committees. That’s another sort of thing that I talk a lot about. But making sure everyone on the board knows those benchmarks and indicators of hitting those benchmarks and then explicitly working to move in that direction.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: I think training is a huge, huge thing here. And a lot of times boards sort of, you know, roll their eyes at the idea of training, but there are lots of little ways that organizations can build trainings or sort of growth opportunities, capacity building, into every meeting in small ways. You know, one or two big trainings a year and lots of small trainings so that “what it means to be a ‘good’ board” is being co-created by the board. And you know, this is the Virgo in me, clarity of definitions, right? Just knowing what those benchmarks are and saying as a group, “What are we all going to hold ourselves accountable to? How do we want to be a grown-up board in a year?” And working towards that.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, that’s really helpful. Well, so, before we go, I am curious if anyone’s out there listening and let’s say they’re thinking about joining a nonprofit board or either for the first time or they, it’s been a while. I’m curious what types of questions you think folks out there should be asking themselves and the organization to make sure that they’re a good match and this makes sense for both them and for the organization.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Absolutely. I think asking yourself, why do you want to join the board? “What is it about this organization, its issue, its mission, the way that it works that you are passionate about?” And being able to articulate that to the leadership and the board.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: I think asking yourself and being very honest about what is your capacity to show up? Do you have the time? And again, this is not, “Do I have the money, do I have the resources?,” it’s, “Do I have the time and the inclination to give? Will I be willing to fundraise? Will I be willing to open my networks?”
Brooke Richie-Babbage: And then related to that, the questions for the organization, you want to ask things that will let you know if you’d be willing to do these things. “How do they actually work? What are their organizational values? What is the relationship between the existing board and the organization’s leadership? Do they work together? Is there tension?” And if you can talk to both the executive director and the board chair, what are their respective ideas about the role of board members, right? An executive director and a board chair are going to have different perspectives on that. And so really hearing from each person, how will they want to work with you? What will look and feel good to them so that you can see, “Oh, that actually resonates with me, or it doesn’t.”
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, and I think related to that, I was on a board once where when I became the chair, we tried to take them on the journey from being a working board to a governing board, and one of the things we did as a process of growing up, to use your language, was actually institute an annual board self-evaluation. So we created a survey. I’ll find a good example we’ll link to in the show notes. There’s lots of examples out there that exist that you can make your own. But the idea was that every year the board would evaluate itself and then the governance committee would look at that. We would have direct conversations with individual board members first, you know, “How do you personally feel,” but also, “How’s the board doing on the ways a board should be acting?” And I think if, and one question that you could ask is, “Have you done an evaluation? Can I see the results of the latest one? Like, how is this board functioning as a group, too?” Those are all really good things to consider.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Absolutely. And actually, just to lift up one last thing that you’re mentioning now, I think all of the questions we’ve talked about today, sort of “What does it mean to be a ‘good’ board?” Underlying all of it is you have to ask this question as a board asking “What does it mean for us to be a good board?” has to be an explicit part of the work of the board. So, meetings will focus on the work of, you know, the program work, the work of the organization, what’s happening in the organization. There has to be time at every meeting throughout the year to do the work of the board. “How are we doing? Where are we going? What are our goals?” And make that a really, you know, a central part of what it means to be a group working together.
Farra Trompeter: A hundred percent. Brooke, thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Me too.
Farra Trompeter: If you’re out there and you’d like to connect with Brooke, be sure to visit her website at BrookeRichieBabbage.com. You can also follow her on LinkedIn and Instagram, @BJRichieBabbage. That’s B-J-R-I-C-H-I-E-B-A-B-B-A-G-E. You can also listen and subscribe to her podcast, The Nonprofit Mastermind, on Spotify and Apple Podcast.
Farra Trompeter: Brooke, before we go, anything else you’d like to share with our listeners?
Brooke Richie-Babbage: The last thing I’d say is if folks want to email me, I always love getting emails, questions about this, or anything else. My email is brooke AT brookerichiebabbage DOT com. And if the spelling seems weird, I was telling you offline, it’s the babbage part is cabbage but with a B.
Farra Trompeter: There you go.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: So, BrookeRichieBabbage.com.
Farra Trompeter: Well, as an Aries and ENFP, I have enjoyed this conversation. We’ve had points of, you know, places where we’re complementary, places where we are similar.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Yes.
Farra Trompeter: Brooke, thanks again, and everyone out there, thank you for listening. Have a lovely one out there.
Brooke Richie-Babbage: Thank you so much for having me.