Reflections, stories & ideas on non-profit leadership.

Motivating board members: it’s complicated

Executive directors and chairpersons are often at a loss to figure out how to motivate their boards to show more interest or take on new tasks. But what is it that motivates board members in the first place? Perhaps they are already motivated but efforts to get the board members to change miss the mark. Sure, ‘giving back to their community’ may well be the reason most people serve on a non-profit board but is it useful to know this? Might there be lots to understand about board member needs and aspirations as volunteers before we ask more of them?

The motivation for board service, as it turns out, is complex because most individuals are motivated by both altruistic and personal reasons for joining and serving on a board.  Understanding what is important to board members and helping board members understand what is important to each other could be of value. Knowing this can help in strengthening the board as a team and in generating director energy around and away from the board table.


The topic of motivation figures prominently into most organizational behaviour courses, a core subject for most business and public administration students. As an OB instructor I have exposed hundreds of students to a number of motivational theories or frameworks. The idea of employee motivation, introduced in the university classroom often starts with introducing Abraham Maslow’s pyramid, or hierarchy of needs, proposed more than 60 years ago.

More recent thinking on motivation has given rise to other useful frameworks including David McClelland’s Learned Needs and Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria’s 4-Drive theories. And then there is the idea of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, the difference between motivation that arises from outside the individual and motivation from within, like students being motivated more by grades or by the love of learning. I will return to this in a bit.

Altruistic and Personal Motivations

Luckily there is some research on motivation on volunteer boards including both Canadian and American studies. Two offer particular insights.

Sue Inglis and Shirley Cleave did a study in a southern Ontario locale resulting in “A Scale to Assess Board Member Motivations in Nonprofit Organizations” .1)Sue Inglis and Shirley Cleave, A Scale to Assess Board Member Motivations in Nonprofit Organizations, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, Vol 17, No 1 Fall 2006. For another Canadian study see Elizabeth Ridley and Kathy Barr Board Volunteers in Canada, and their Motivations and Challenges, Knowledge Development Centre, Imagine Canada, 2006. It was published in 2006.  Sue was then at McMaster University in Hamilton and Shirley was at my alma mater in the east, the University of New Brunswick. Both taught in departments of kinesiology, an academic discipline often married with sport and recreation management.

Inglis and Cleave found that board members’ motivations to serve could be grouped into these six general categories.

  • Enhancement of self-worth
  • Learning through community
  • Helping community
  • Developing individual relationships
  • Unique contributions to the board
  • Self-healing

Helping one’s community and contributing ones particular experience and skills to the board’s deliberations are clearly altruistic motives. But what of the more personal reasons? These include being recognized and appreciated, developing new professional contacts, interacting with other community leaders, gaining new perspectives and knowledge, broadening one’s social network, and successfully completing tasks as part of group. Many boards operate under a virtual “cloak of invisibility” when it comes to their presence in their own organization and in its wider community. Few operate with their own governance goals in addition to the organization’s goals.

Joining and Staying Engaged

In the U.S.A., Katrina Miller Stevens and Kevin Ward conducted some research on the subject in Georgia that is presented in their paper Board Membership Motivations published in 2013. 2)Katrina Miller-Stevens and Kevin D Ward, Board Membership Motivations: A Research Project On Individual Motivations For Nonprofit Board Membership, Georgia Center for Nonprofits, 2013 Miller- Stevens and Ward’s article is founded on the concept of public service motivation, a topic much studied.

The Georgia study looked at what attracts people to a board and what kept them engaged. They too uncover both altruistic and personal reasons for serving with altruistic motives being the most important. While there are not dramatic differences in the motivations for joining and staying, the board members they surveyed rated the opportunity for personal growth and networking more highly in their decision to join a board.  Loyalty to the organization was for many one of the reasons for continuing to show up for meetings. A faithful board, it seems to me, may not be one inclined to show much initiative.

Men, Women and Youth

Given the demographic make-up of the boards studied, if not across North America, neither study benefited from ethnically or racially diverse samples. Nonetheless, Miller-Stevens and Ward discovered that while there are not a lot of gender differences in a person’s motivation to join and stay on a board, there are significant age differences. The younger the board member the more likely they will look to “enhancing self worth” and “developing relationships”, as one reason to be involved. Their reasons are more personal, more about their own development and career prospects. This is as it should be!

More (Reasons) is Better

I am of the view that greater motivation comes not from a single source but from board members having multiple hopes and aspirations around their service.  Altruistic motivations may be tops for most directors. However, unless one is on the board of a newly forming organization or are on a board actively helping the organization stickhandle itself into taking on a new community role, a director’s own connection to ‘doing good work’ is not likely to be direct and tangible.

Chris Jarvis, a Toronto-based consultant, has suggested that when it comes to volunteers, self-interest, not altruism, is a more powerful motivator. He writes that it “is essential that people begin to discover they’re intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations for volunteering. Why? Because when the things we do connect to who we are, we become personally invested”.3)Chris Jarvis, Want Good Volunteers? Forget the Altruistic, Find the Self Interested (Parts 1 & 2), Realized Worth – Blog, September 2, 2009 Jarvis goes further and suggests that the more we ask a volunteer to do things out of altruism, the more we run the danger of them objectifying the beneficiaries of that effort. He recommends that we help volunteers to discover the personal reasons they have for being involved. The same I believe, goes for board member volunteers.

Board Exercise

Taking up Jarvis’ challenge I have created a one-page Board Motivations Exercise that can help board members identify and then discuss their motivations for serving. It is based on Inglis and Cleaves’ work and includes some instructions on how best to use it. I have tried it out a couple of times with good effect. It makes for a different discussion than the norm at a board meeting. It also signals that it is OK, even if board members choose to keep some motivations to themselves, to have some personal reasons in the mix. Sharing and discussing the motivations encourages personal disclosure that can strengthen the bonds of trust on the board. Perhaps this will also generate greater commitment and energy around and away from the board table.

Ideas for Board Chairs and Executive Directors

Board chairs and executive directors do not have to rely on simple assumptions about what motivates their board members. The idea of board indivisibility, or dealing with the board as a whole, essential in many respects, works against tailoring the board experience to the needs of specific individuals. Departing from this principle a little, here are some steps to consider:

  • Make your board more visible to your organization and its stakeholders. Do you have a list of your board members on your website? Do you report on board matters in your newsletters, internally and externally? Does your annual report enjoy wide distribution?
  • Encourage board members who are still building a career to list their service on their resumes and LinkedIn page.
  • If you are an executive director invite a board member to a meeting with a funder or sister organization even if they are just along as an observer. Occasionally these could even be scheduled well in advance. Remember not to just extend the invitation to the whole board if there are directors who are particularly interested in building their networks.
  • Consider having your board set some goals or projects for itself for the coming year. These might have to do with recruitment, creating new or reviewing existing policies, revamping their executive director evaluation, board education in relation to sector and community issues, or the leadership and management of a particular event. Suggest to some directors that they lead the initiative.

There is lots of advice on how to “give” your board some motivation. Better meetings help. So do some suggestions for overcoming common obstacles to, and misconceptions about, certain responsibilities and tasks, especially around fundraising. Usually such advice comes with the suggestion that motivation should start at where the board is at. Perhaps understanding both the altruistic and personal sides of motivation will help with this and thereby enable individual directors and whole boards to better see where their interests lie in taking on more meaningful roles.


The image of four pyramids chosen for this post is of the Muttart Conservatory, a botanical garden located in the North Saskatchewan River Valley just outside of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. This community asset is a result of a key donation from the Muttart Foundation one of Alberta’s best known philanthropic institutions and one with a long standing interest in non-profit leadership.

References   [ + ]

1. Sue Inglis and Shirley Cleave, A Scale to Assess Board Member Motivations in Nonprofit Organizations, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, Vol 17, No 1 Fall 2006. For another Canadian study see Elizabeth Ridley and Kathy Barr Board Volunteers in Canada, and their Motivations and Challenges, Knowledge Development Centre, Imagine Canada, 2006.
2. Katrina Miller-Stevens and Kevin D Ward, Board Membership Motivations: A Research Project On Individual Motivations For Nonprofit Board Membership, Georgia Center for Nonprofits, 2013
3. Chris Jarvis, Want Good Volunteers? Forget the Altruistic, Find the Self Interested (Parts 1 & 2), Realized Worth – Blog, September 2, 2009
Grant MacDonald

Written by Grant MacDonald

Grant MacDonald is a former Associate Professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. For more than two decades, Grant has provided workshops, courses and print resources to a variety of small and medium sized non-profit organizations. Helping volunteer boards and executive directors to govern with purpose, passion, intellect and humour continues to engage and challenge him.

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  1. Sue Inglis


    It was good to see how you summarized our research and applied our scale items for the board member work sheet. It is always rewarding to see our results in action! And thank you for letting us know how you are using our work.

    I like the question of ‘are there any inappropriate items’ as that, if well facilitated, could broaden respondent’s understanding of the diversity of reasons for volunteering on boards.

    There were responses in our research that reflected a spiritual (higher calling) reason for getting involved with board work. This result always stayed with me and I am sure we included a statement in the manuscript about future study to consider this as a motivation. I don’t have the raw data with me but there were a number of respondents who offered there beliefs in religion, spirituality, etc as a reason to volunteer in the board work. And, I recall these respondents came from a variety of nonprofits.

    Have you come across this result/motivation in your work? I would be interested in knowing.

    All the best with your work Grant.

    Sue Inglis
    Professor Emerita of Kinesiology
    McMaster University

    1. Grant MacDonald Post author

      Sue: Thanks so much for your response to the article and the work sheet. I have not encountered anyone who has admitted to a spiritual reason for getting involved in board work. It would not surprise me in the context of more front line volunteer work but at board level it would. Thanks for alerting me to the possibility especially if it may be present across a range of nonprofits.


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