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The Participant Board Hat

By March 25, 2015August 17th, 20222 Comments

ParticipantBoardHat_horizOver the next three weeks, we will be looking at the three “hats” that board members wear and the roles they play when wearing each of them. Since the “participant hat” is the often the most mis-understood, we will begin with it.

There are three common ways that board presidents and executive directors communicate the meaning of the participant hat. And, unfortunately, two of them are likely to leave board members baffled and frustrated. Board members are participants or ambassadors when they participate in fundraising events and other activities to help spread the mission of the organization.

One of the definitions of the word ambassador is “authorized messenger or representative.” As a participant or ambassador, the board member needs to keep this definition in mind. To be a representative of the organization, the board member must be informed or educated.

It is impossible to share the vision of the nonprofit without knowledge about what the organization does, who it serves, its success stories, etc. While it is the responsibility of the board member to participate in learning opportunities, it is the responsibility of the executive director to ensure that learning opportunities exist. This can easily be done by sharing “mission moments” at each board meeting, providing tours of the facility, and offering an overview of its current challenges. This educational process must be on-going, small increments of education tend to be better that a single lengthy session.

As a participant, it is also the job of board members to connect the organization with others in the community. This can be done when the board member is at a social gathering, at his/her place of work or even grocery shopping. During normal conversation, the board member may have an opportunity to connect an interest of the person they are conversing with to mention the work of the organization.

For board members to be successful ambassadors, there are two essential ingredients. The first is environmental knowledge. This means that the board member must know that the things they say and do for the organization will make a difference. The executive director needs to communicate this sentiment to the board member. Doing so will go a long way toward encouraging the behavior.

The second essential ingredient that trumps everything else is providing board members with clear expectations. One of the best ways to outline expectations is through the use of “Board Assurances” or a “Board Affirmation Statement” which defines exactly what is expected and required of board members. Board members will be most successful in living up to the expectations when they are aware of them prior to becoming a board member.

Does your board understand the hats board members wear? Contact us today for a customized training for all of your board members.


  • Bill Smith says:

    Reviewing the roles of board members is helpful whether it is the first time or tenth time. It is so easy for board members to stray and easy for us to let them stray. Great article! But I have a question, and I truly don’t have an answer already in mind.

    Board members also get involved in the same sorts of activities as other non-board volunteers. This might be especially true of smaller and/or younger organizations. When board members roll up their sleeves and get in the weeds. what parameters or cautions should there be to make sure a board member does not begin usurping or manipulating the authority of the executive?

    • Bill, thanks for your question. The key to ensuring that board members (when functioning as a volunteer) do not overstep their bounds is really to make sure they understand their roles and the three hats of board members. Next week we will be talking about the volunteer hat. I think that too often board members feel that when they are volunteering they can still wear their governance hat. However, the governance hat is to be worn only in the boardroom. Of course, it is often difficult for the Executive Director or CEO to tell a well-meaning board member that they are overstepping. It is usually easier for a consultant or someone outside the organization to share this with the entire board.

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