How Maslow Can Help Us Build More Effective NFP Boards


Talking with people who are on NFP boards, the conversation often turns to why they decided to join a particular board. Invariably many will respond by saying it was a passion for the cause that influenced their decision.

Unfortunately, while certainly important, a highly effective NFP board today needs a great deal more than truck loads of passion. I recently came across a TEDTalk by Chris Grundner that makes this point very clearly – if you are interested in being part of a highly effective board I recommend you take a look.

Chris was a senior VP in the corporate world when he lost his wife to a brain tumor. He opted out of that sector and founded the Kelly Heinz-Grundner Brain Tumor Foundation and currently serves as the president and CEO of the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement (DANA).

He explains that when building a NFP one of the biggest temptations is to quickly fill seats on your board by using a “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality. But it is an expedient temptation to be resisted.

Having passionate members isn’t a bad thing, it just isn’t the only ingredient in the recipe of a great board. To reinforce his point Chris refers us to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

We are all familiar with Abraham Maslow’s theory which states that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. When one need is satisfied, a person seeks to fulfill the next one, and so on. The needs are often shown as levels within a pyramid, with the largest, most fundamental levels of need at the bottom — things like water, food, sleep, shelter. At the top of the pyramid, is self-actualisation — most often explained as understanding what your full potential is and then actually striving to realize it.

Using Maslow’s approach, Chris has designed his own “needs pyramid” to describe, what he considers to be the essential building blocks, or governance levels,  for an effective NFP board.

Level 1 – Passion

Like food and water, for a NFP board passion is essential – but it isn’t everything. It provides a solid foundation for all organisations.

Level 2 – Standards

Establishing operational best practices are key components to stable leadership. The board chair sets the standards and conveys the expectations to everyone accordingly. The individual board members are responsible for holding each other accountable to those standards. It is also vital that the board chair and executive follow the same standards.

Level 3 – Diversity of Skills & Perspectives

Great boards aren’t full of “yes” people. They consist of people who “infuse purposeful disruption, but are mission-based and constituency-driven” and are willing to “create a culture of constructive conflict”

Level 4 – Transcendent Leadership

Here the board has embraced a leadership style that enables them to look at the organisation as a connective integrated whole and their strategies and plans are designed to ensure maximum benefit for a maximum number of people for a maximum period of time.

For me, the take-out message from Chris’ talk is that the building of a highly effective board can’t be left to chance. But with a conscious deliberate approach great outcomes for all stakeholders are very achievable.

By Chris Gandy – Chris is the Founder & Principal of Cause & Effective. Our cause is to assist cause-based organisations to more effectively deliver on their cause.

About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

1 Response

  1. nfpaustralia

    It has always amazed me how may not-for-profit boards, at least in Australia, are made up of well-meaning people that have often been ‘tapped on the shoulder’. Tools are available to assess board needs but are used only by a small number of nfps. We wouldnt hire staff, or even other volunteers without a robust process, yet we often ignore such processes when recruiting board members.

Thats our take on things. Over to you, please add to the discussion.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s