nonprofits,local leaders & Grt.New Haven business sharing information
I often hear board members I'm working with say: we need to add a lawyer. And indeed, lawyers are popular additions to nonprofit boards but I'm not quite certain as to what exactly is expected with the addition of one. True, lawyers have a way of thinking, a process or discipline, that can be helpful to a board when fiduciary and sometimes strategic matters are up for discussion (which should be every meeting). True, lawyers know particular legal disciplines. For example, real estate lawyers know real estate law and this knowledge could be useful to a community development organization. But of course, the board member attorney could not be engaged in the actual transaction representing the nonprofit, that would be a conflict of interest (and of course, any one who represents themselves would have a fool for an attorney).
So what is the reasoning behind this perceived need? Alas, I believe that many nonprofits do believe that "possession" of a particular skill set embodied in the likes of an attorney or an accountant or even a banker as examples of professionals, will ensure the availability of "free" labor. Reality: it may and it may not. For sure, these and other professionals all can add value to a board but not necessarily as defined by their category (like attorney). When they bring value it is because they are a) passionate about the nonprofit's business caring about outcomes; b) willing to participate equally with the rest of the board in any conversation and/or task that is needed; and, c) likely have networks that can help support the work of the nonprofit if asked by this member. And, I'm sure there are additional benefits that may relate to but are not specific to their "job".
Yes, lawyers as well as all kinds of professions can add value to a nonprofit board. The governance committee however can best begin the conversation about need not with what profession box do we need to check-off but what networks, skills, knowledge, experience and passions, but first, always, passion, will help the board best fulfill its fiduciary duties of care, loyalty and obedience. Recruit accordingly. What incoming members don't know, they can be supported through ongoing training.