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Four Roles Of Effective Board Members

By July 7th, 2023No Comments13 min read
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Douglas Nelson, the Founder of The Discovery Group, lists down the essential roles of effective board members that help keep them aligned, engaged, and satisfied with their involvement in organizations. He notes that these roles make or break organizations as they ensure the success and alignment of the boards across the sector. Douglas also explains how these roles affect the whole organization and why they are important elements that make up a successful board as a not-for-profit social profit leader in Canada.

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Four Roles Of Effective Board Members

On the show, we have a special short solo cast focusing on the four essential roles of social profit board members. How do we keep them aligned? How do we keep them engaged? How do we keep them feeling satisfied with our involvement in our organizations? The four board roles that we want to go over are straightforward our board members are learners, advisors, deciders and fundraisers. All four of those roles are essential to ensuring the success and alignment of our boards across the sector. Speaking with colleagues across the country, I have heard several questions and challenges that CEOs are facing with their boards on sustaining that essential alignment with the board, keeping the board members engaged and at the appropriate level of governance, providing advice and helping to advance the organizations through what have been for many very difficult times.  It makes sense that we are seeing this challenge of alignment across the sector. As May-June is often the AGM season for many organizations across the country, organizations will have fully 25% to 40% of their board members on their boards who have never been in an onboarding session in-person or never been on an in-person board meeting either. They have never had the chance to share a cup of terrible coffee in the corner and understand how the board works. They haven’t had the privilege and the benefit of getting to socialize and network with their colleagues around the board table in any real way. Instead, we have been forced into this virtual way of governance, which has been challenging for us all.

When I think of the two boards that I have joined, they are organizations that I care a lot about and want to contribute to in a meaningful way. I think about social profit boards all the time. I care a great deal about these organizations and feel privileged to serve as a board member and yet I still feel myself holding back, waiting to start to contribute once we are able to get back together in the same room. I’m holding back, waiting for the real work to begin. As a board member, I’m sure I’m not alone. When I speak with CEOs and colleagues across the country, there is this big concern about engagement and how to keep their boards active, productive and governing at the appropriate level. This is a challenge at all times, not just as a result of the pandemic or virtual governance.

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Conversations around our own office in the Zoom table, we have talked about how our clients in the sector more generally can keep their boards not only engaged but fully inline in this virtual environment. Through our work, we have the privilege of talking to board members for many organizations across the country. We hear board members asking questions that I’m sure your board members and you may be asking yourself as a board member. “Am I adding value? Am I contributing my best skills? Am I asking the right questions? Are we, as a board, making the right decisions?” These are questions of people who care and want to make a difference when they positively contribute to the organizations that they serve. They were asking, whether they were able to do enough or the organizations are asking enough of them to provide their full value.  To support our colleagues, board members, CEOs and organizations all across the country, we thought it would be helpful to focus on these four roles that we view as essential to ensuring a happy, healthy, engaged and aligned board. I encourage you to think of these four roles and have a conversation around your board table about when the board is acting as a learner, advisor, decider and fundraiser. Those four roles, learner, advisor, fundraiser and decider, come in different shapes and sizes around different boards. Every organization will have its own order of priority for those roles. Find your own order. I encourage you to start with the idea that the decider should not be the first one on the list. When we work with organizations, we often find the number one issue that the board members or management have in their current environment is control. We know that there are many significant underlying problems, whether, in the performance of the organization or operation of the board and oftentimes, it’s both.

Board members in that decider role are like fundraisers. People assume fundraisers just ask people for money all day long. When of course, those of us who know to fundraise well and love it know that the actual solicitation or the ask is a very small part of the work that we do to build relations for the organizations that we work at. It’s true with boards. They make very few decisions and that’s a sign of success, not a limiting factor of the control of the board. If your board is likely to jump at that decider role and say, “Let’s talk about how we can do more of that.” You likely have your work cut out for you and we can help you with that. For most of you, I suspect that’s not what your board is going to jump out and say. They are going to be much more interested in better understanding the roles as learners and advisors.


Very few organizations have it as the solution to any governance challenge or perceived governance challenge. Very few have the answer come out. What we need is a board that decides more. It doesn’t happen that way. It doesn’t work. Let’s look more closely at the four roles. Let’s start with the learner. It’s my favorite role in life and around a board table. When board members are in their learner role, they are seeking to understand the mission and learning more about the organization in action, beneficiaries, stakeholders and perhaps the research that’s funded. Those are the moments of mission that you bring to your board table to help people see what the good work of your organization is outside of the board table and the four walls of your organization.

Board members are also in their learning role when they were seeking to understand the business model, “Where does the money come from? How do we raise it? How much does it cost to raise it?” It’s recognizing that there is a cost to raise it. The difference between unrestricted and restricted dollars is the allocation of those dollars, whether it be to organizational, grant or programmatic expenses. A nuanced understanding of how the organization’s business model works allow board members to ask much better questions and provide much better advice to the management team over the course of any given year. Board members in their learning role are also seeking to understand the implications of racial, social and economic equity movements on your organization. This essential conversation is too long and coming are everywhere across the social profit sector and in our day-to-day lives necessarily. Board members who are asking how this impacts our work around the board table and the mission of our organizations are serving to advance those organizations and make sure these essential conversations continue.

A very simple tip that we have that we suggest to boards, anytime we have the chance to stand in front of them is instead of saying, “You know what we should do,” we encourage board members to ask, “Have we considered?” It bakes in the understanding that management and the people who work at our social profit organizations think about this stuff all the time. It is their day-to-day work. Board members think about it around board meetings, committee meetings and maybe a few checkpoints in between. They are consuming thought on a day-to-day basis. When boards say, “You know what we should do,” it is one of the fastest ways to defeat the morale of your organization. If you are a leader saying, “You know what we should do around your management table or in your all-staff meetings,” I would encourage you to change that language a little bit and ask instead, “Have we considered?”


Let’s look at the advisor role. The advisor provides advice. It’s right there in the title. The name is on the tin, “Offering counsel on strategic issues and supporting the CEO and management team to define the challenges and opportunities facing your organization. Helping to identify the barriers and strategies to either overcome or avoid those barriers.” The advisor role can happen both informally and formally. Informally in one-on-one conversations with the CEO and other members of the management team when appropriate outside of board meetings. It can happen at committee meetings and board meetings. We find it very helpful to use the CEO report moment in the board agenda as a way for the board to provide advice. We suggest to CEOs that they provide the report in a written form in advance, provide a less than two-minute speech talk about their CEO report at the meeting and then open the floor for any questions to discuss within the CEO report or what may not be in the CEO report.

Do that right at the top of the meeting. Don’t wait for people’s senses to be dulled by needing to approve the minutes of the consent agenda. Jump right into the CEO report, open up the floor for discussion and get the board acting in that advisor role as soon as possible. From four board members, it’s about bringing the richness of your professional and personal expertise to the board. It’s about understanding the nuance of the communities that you serve, the business and organization that you are operating and how the external world and factors are going to impact your ability to be successful, effective and happy while doing it.


The third role is the decider role. When boards need to make a decision, they need to make a decision. We think of the decider role in two places. It takes two forms. The formal approval of budgets, CRA filings, partnerships and large gifts come as a product of the organization working well and comes to the board for discussion and ultimately a decision. When organizations are working well, these discussions are important. We often see that unanimity is the name of the game, “Most board members are on board. Everybody is on board and in agreement. That’s great.” It can lead if that’s the only type of decision. If the board isn’t being sufficiently engaged in their learning and advisor roles, we can start to hear the phrase, “The board is acting as a rubber stamp.” No one seriously said it positively anyway.

When the board is feeling that way, management is at risk of board finding other ways to act as a decider and come closer to the organization to break that alignment in order to better understand what’s happening behind the scenes, they suspect that something is happening behind the scenes or there are scenes to get behind. Unanimity on these form and function decisions should be unanimous but all of those issues should have been discussed in a learner or an advisor context prior to the board making those decisions. When I say in an earlier context, I don’t mean in the agenda item immediately proceeding in the same meeting. This needs to be a much longer, more nuanced conversation.


The final role is as a fundraiser. If you are on a social profit board in Canada, give meaningfully to your own circumstances and means, it is entirely appropriate for boards that you serve on to expect that you will make those organizations a philanthropic priority for you and your family during the time that you serve on those organizations. Please don’t make the CEO chase you for your gift. Don’t make the CEO have to follow up with 3 or 4 emails, phone calls or try to meet with you in person with their masks on yelling from the end of the driveway about where that gift is. It’s in charge of managing the board-giving program. Meaning that they are in charge of asking everyone for their gift.

Often, they have a staff person either from the annual fund or a major gift officer who works with that board member and the board but it is not the CEO. It is a board member making a peer-to-peer ask to ensure that 100% board-giving is essential. It is essential for corporates and foundation partners. That is a reasonable expectation for those organizations that 100% of your board has given. It is of great utility when speaking to individual donors to be able to say that 100% of our volunteer board members have made a contribution to our organization and they do so every year. It is a powerful point of credibility with donors. It is an essential one that board members have a duty to uphold through their service to the organization. Giving your time is not sufficient. You must make a financial contribution.

The other more fun and less preachy part of the fundraiser role is to act as an ambassador. Open doors. Be a champion for the organization and its mission. Spread the good news. Talk about the work, challenges and successes of the organization to friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Let people know that your organization is being successful, doing important work and meeting critical community needs in pursuit of its mission. Be proud to be on the board and tell everybody about it. That is acting as a fundraiser when you are a board member in a social profit organization. Taking together the four roles, learner, advisor, decider and fundraiser are the essential elements to being a successful board member and having a successful board as a not-for-profit social profit leader in Canada.

We at The Discovery Group think about these issues all of the time. We welcome conversations from colleagues across the country on how you are working with your boards to ensure that alignment. If you need a little help, we are here for that too. Thank you very much for reading the blog. We are coming up soon on our 100th episode. It means the world to me that you have taken the time to read these great conversations we have had with social profit leaders to learn from them and occasionally to learn from me through these solo casts. I appreciate you, see you and wish you all the success.

About Douglas Nelson

President & Managing Director Douglas Nelson founded The Discovery Group with a vision to bring together a group of talented and compassionate leaders. Together they are aligned with his belief that the social profit sector represents individuals and communities coming together to change the world for the better. Collectively, they spearhead inspired strategies to help nurture that change. Described by the media as a ‘fundraising phenom’ and a ‘true innovator,’ Douglas unravels complex challenges in aligning governance and philanthropic performance. His early development work in education propelled him to become the Chief Development Officer at the University of Alberta, and responsible for the second-largest fundraising campaign in Canadian history.

As President and CEO of the BC Cancer Foundation for six years, he led the organization to revenue of $300m, including a campaign that would launch the Personalized Onco-Genomic (POG) program. His work is award-winning in the areas of governance, culture, advocacy, and innovative granting, and he has raised nearly $1 billion for organizations in Canada and the United States. As President of the California Pacific Medical Centre Foundation, he led the development and execution of a campaign that would support the opening of two hospitals valued at $3 billion, shaping the future of care in San Francisco. Douglas is also the host of the leading social profit sector podcast, The Discovery Pod. With a photographic memory for baseball statistics, Douglas had a childhood dream to be the first baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays. These days, he can be found remarkably often at a Bob Dylan concert.