Should you have a competency-based board?

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What should your criteria be for determining who gets to be listed on the slate of directors that stands for election at your annual general meeting?

Many not-for-profits use geographical criteria as their primary guide. They want to ensure that members across the territory the organization serves have a voice on the board.

Others want to ensure that widely held interests of members are considered at the board table, and so nominate a slate of individuals who come with an expertise in specific interest categories. These approaches produce "-based" boards.

However, many not-for-profit organizations are moving towards "-based boards": individuals are chosen to stand for election based on a particular skill set/expertise that is being sought and which they would bring to the board.

This model is sometimes referred to as going for the "13 best ". The notion is that the seven, eleven or thirteen (or whatever is the board size) individuals are among the best leaders available to serve based on the expertise they would contribute. People with the desired attributes would inherently be sensitive to regional, special interest, and high priority needs important to the membership. The objective is to leverage the leaders' competencies to drive the organization's performance.

For most not-for-profits, desirable competencies include the following:

  • Vision for their sector's enrichment Fund development capabilities
  • Government relations acumen PR/marketing/communications expertise
  • Legal knowledge Leadership/human resource/volunteer management expertise
  • Community respect and recognition.

It is critical to determine methods of assessing competencies to validate candidate selections and sustain the trust of members in its leadership.

Taken to its long-term application, competency-based leadership is the use of processes that promote more effective use of intellectual capital and better decisions and the sustaining of this through successive generations of leaders.

So which approach is better?

In an American Society of Association Executive's Foundation-sponsored publication entitled, The Will To Govern Well: Knowledge, Trust, and Nimbleness, Glenn Tecker comments:

"Both constituency-based boards and competency-based boards have been observed to be both satisfied and unsatisfied with their performance. Issues of size and composition cannot be viewed independently from the issues of authority, responsibility, capacity, and process. Therefore, board process is becoming a more important issue than board composition or size because, more and more, process is viewed as the leverage point for effecting the desired balance among those variables on any given board."

What do you think? Send your comments to me and we'll share opinions in a future article on this site.

Paulette Vinette, CAE, is the co-author of Risk Management - A primer for directors of not-for-profit organizations, which was recently published by the Canadian Society of Association Executives in 2005 (ISBN 0-921998-01-5). Paulette in President of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting practice that serves the not-for-profit association community. She can be reached at 1-877-787-7714 or

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