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The Feral Board Member: Tapping Untamed Talent

Feral – \ˈfir-əl, ˈfer-; ˈfe-rəl\, adjective. Having escaped from domestication and become wild.

For several years, I had the honor of participating in the design and delivery of our local Arts & Science Council’s Cultural Leadership Training (CLT) program. This board cultivation and training program targets young leaders with limited board experience and exposes them to the challenges and rewards of leading arts and science organizations in our community. At the conclusion of the 10-month program — through a process that is part speed-dating and part sorority/fraternity rush — participants are matched with organizations for board placement.

One of my favorite sessions to facilitate was “Finding the Right Fit.” The session led participants through a series of self-reflection exercises and discussions to help them identify their preferred, best-fit board opportunity. The process required them to take into account not only the size, complexity, culture, organizational life stage, and challenges facing nonprofit organizations, but also their own preferences — lifestyle (work/family demands), motivating factors, risk tolerance, and tolerance for chaos — for a board experience along the spectrum from start-up to established organizations.

I frequently run into alumni of the program when I am out and about in the community and always relish hearing about their board experiences, and whether they felt well-prepared to govern. I recently encountered an entrepreneurially-minded, professionally successful, 30-something alum who, upon completion of CLT three years ago, enthusiastically accepted two board placements. One placement was on the board of a 110-year old, financially stagnant and risk-intolerant organization, and the other was with a high-profile, “corporate” board that is universally regarded as successful in its custodial role with an organization that does not have to engage in fundraising.

When I asked how he was enjoying his board experiences, he informed me that he had resigned from both boards after completing just one three-year term. In response to my perplexed expression, he elaborated that neither turned out to be the right fit for him. The scripted and routinized nature of board meetings was a torturous experience for him. He was further frustrated by the lack of receptivity on the part of both boards to his innovative, and entrepreneurial-yet-mission-focused, ideas for identifying a sustainable, impactful future. In fact, he was questioning whether any board experience would enable him to share what he viewed as the highest and best talents that he has to offer, and in a board context that was not stilted and stultifying.

I wish that I could say that his reaction to board service is the exception for his generation. In fact, building a pipeline of young leaders who have the capacity — or willingness — to give time, talent, and treasure to nonprofit boards is one of the greatest challenges facing nonprofit organizations. While it would be easy to attribute the problem to unrealistic expectations on the part of young board novitiates, that would let nonprofit boards off the hook for not understanding and accommodating the needs and preferences of Generation Y and Millennials.

The fact is that these individuals are, by nature, feral in their outlook on life and work. They are not subject to traditional or predictable patterns of work habit or employer loyalty, domicile preferences, relationship formation and evolution, or civic engagement. Less structure is more, and commitment is fleeting. And they are one of the most innovative and socially-entrepreneurial generations in our nation’s history.

So, how might the nonprofit sector adapt to capitalize on the considerable talents of feral board members — of any age? The answer is to not try and “tame” them. Perhaps it’s time to create a new, transitory opportunity for nonprofit leadership engagement — the Nonprofit Thought Partner (NPTP). Imagine assembling a fluid constellation of individuals with just the right combination of knowledge and experiences to address a specific strategic or operational need or challenge with which an organization is grappling. Time-limited, entrepreneurial, and solution-oriented in nature, NPTPs would be bound by a deliverable, not by a board term. They would function differently from a task force in the expectation that they would go deep into the exploration of options and be empowered beyond delivering a set of recommendations; they would see the solution through to implementation. Experiencing a direct connection to results is the ultimate motivator for action-oriented feral board members.

Beyond bringing a considerable brain trust, NPTPs might also bring a network of like-minded peers and colleagues who are similarly disinclined to traditional board service, but who bring other resources of equal or greater value.

Is it time for a new board paradigm in your organization?

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