Best Board Books #9: Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board


By John Pearson

Max De Pree writes, “There is a reason why this is a small book. We want it to be useful, but not a burden.” So…here’s my ninth nominee in this “best board books” series.

Book #9:
Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board, by Max De Pree (Order from Amazon)

I tilt towards books that lean towards the contrarian quadrant. Example: former USC President Steven Sample's book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership

So when I had a five-minute conversation with consultant and author Dave Coleman about Max De Pree’s 91-page contrarian gem, it fed my board governance book-addicted soul. I love this book and the title: Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board.

Contrarian Max De Pree (1924-2017) writes:
• “We believe good people need reminders and an occasional nudge, not a sermon.”
“A good board will measure the appropriate inputs as well as the outputs. Failure to measure what matters damages our future.”
• “My friend Jim Beré…once told me that he would serve only on boards that had hard-working executive committees.”

Commenting on board committees, De Pree notes the story of the English visitor who watched his first American football game and observed, “The game combines the two worst elements of American culture—violence and committee meetings.”

Rather than penning a 300-page snoozer, De Pree crafts a coaching conversation (a series of letters) with a young leader and his first CEO/board relationship. It’s easy reading and the short epistles are extraordinary.

Board service, writes De Pree, should be “demanding in the best sense of the word.” He lists three other characteristics of great boards:
• Lively
• Effective
• Fun to serve on

CEOs will appreciate every page: “…the chief responsibility of boards is to be effective on behalf of the organization.” He adds, “Effective boards, in a nutshell:
• remember the long view,
remember that the president and staff are human,
• and do the work of the board…”
• Plus this: “Most of the work of the board takes place through the implementation of an agenda.”

More contrarian pokes-in-the-ribs:
• “Many high-priced consultants will tell you to have the shortest possible mission statement. I don’t happen to think that is such a great idea.”
• “I feel that the closer an organization comes to being defined as a movement, the closer it will come to fulfilling its potential.”
• “I’m a great believer that management should be invited into the board’s world but that the board should not go into management’s area.”
“The chairperson should not permit anyone to read to the board.

Max De Pree served as board chair of Fuller Seminary—and get this—the seminary honored him with the establishment of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership in 1996. His day job was with Herman Miller, the office furniture company, where he served as president from 1980 to 1987 (and as a board member until 1995). His book, Leadership Is an Art, has sold more than 800,000 copies. (See also Leading Without Power: Finding Hope in Serving Community.)
Effective boards do very good planning, says De Pree. He lists three planning questions and then suggests who must be involved in the planning .… some people need to be involved, to be blunt, because they are going to pay the bill.”

He balances the CFO’s involvement in planning with this: “Planning by the board ought always to include the chief financial officer, a bringer of necessary reality to the process. Of course, the chief financial officer should never have a role that stymies the vision. Some realities have priority over numbers.”

Oh, my—I could write another 30 blogs on his contrarian coaching! (In fact—I did!) See the index to the 30-blog series here.

More Wisdom:
• “Loyalty by itself is never sufficient. You always have to link loyalty and competence.”
• “When an organization demands true leadership and the results justify the time and energy, good boards respond with gusto.”
• “Another crime, it seems to me, is to give really good people poor leadership.”

Trust me—this book will not disappoint. All 91 pages are packed with power. Perfect snippets for your “10 Minutes for Governance” segment at every board meeting. (You do that, right?)

BOARD DISCUSSION: De Pree recommends that “Key proposals and issues like building programs or fund drives should always come to the board through its committees at least twice.” Think back for three years—has this been your practice?

MORE RESOURCES: Check out the “40 Blogs. 40 Wednesdays.” color commentaries on Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom, by Dan Busby and John Pearson, including Lesson 31, “Cut the Cord! Invite Board Members to Exit When They Don’t Live Your Values.”


This article was originally posted on the “Governance of Christ-Centered Organizations” blog, hosted by ECFA.
John Pearson, a board governance consultant and author, was ECFA’s governance blogger from 2011 to 2020.
© 2021, ECFA and John Pearson. All rights reserved.


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.