Enhance Harmony by Clarifying Your Participant-Hat Expectations

Understand the three board hats: Governance, Volunteer, and Participant.


by Dan Busby and John Pearson


The best boards communicate their Participant-Hat expectations
to current and new board members with a simple tool,
The Board Member Annual Affirmation Statement.[1]

ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 2: Balancing Board Roles


There’s a familiar scene, almost as common as Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, played out in boardrooms across the country.

CEO: We had a tremendous event last Saturday at the center. I know you’re all busy, but many of our volunteers asked why our board members didn’t participate. I do want to thank Carolyn for coming, so at least the board was represented by one member.

Translation: I’m really ticked off that board members aren’t highly committed to this ministry. Don’t you care about our clients? Our staff and volunteers are constantly wondering—out loud—why you’re even on the board. I’m so disappointed, and I can’t keep covering for your lack of participation in these important events.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Unspoken expectations will also poison the culture—the heart and soul—of a board. But first, how would you define reality in your boardroom? Which scenario describes your board’s experience?

Scenario 1: Hinting. A week before the work day or walk-a-thon, your CEO or board chair hints that it would be helpful if board members participated.

Scenario 2: Whining. After the work day or walk-a-thon, your CEO or board chair whines that it would have been helpful if more board members had participated.

Scenario 3: Affirming. At the beginning of each year, a simple tool, The Board Member Annual Affirmation Statement,[2] lists the Participant-Hat “attendance-required events.” All board members affirm their high commitment to participate or ask to be excused.

Affirming is certainly favored over hinting and whining. For example, new board members should know—up front—if hosting a table of 10 at the fundraising dinner is a required Participant Hat event. Glossing over their lack of advance planning, some CEOs and/or staff members often default to clever guilt tactics to prod board members into showing up. That’s inappropriate and unfair—and hardly God-honoring!

The solution is simple. The best boards customize their own Board Member Annual Affirmation Statement by communicating board member roles and responsibilities with three hats:

  • The Governance Hat section delineates governance roles and responsibilities, along with an annual calendar of board and committee meeting dates, the annual (or every-other-year) board retreat, and other governance-related calendar items.
  • The Volunteer Hat section clarifies the protocol for how board members may serve as volunteers and spells out the appropriate reporting relationships. It also notes why board members should not wear their Governance Hats when volunteering.
  • The Participant Hat section describes the special events (including fundraising events, as detailed in board policies) that board members, and perhaps spouses, are expected to attend—again without their Governance Hats.

Why is this so important? There are at least five stakeholder segments that must understand the three hats. And good news—The Board Member Annual Affirmation Statement tool will help bring clarity to each important group!

  1. Board members will be informed up front of the organization’s realistic expectations regarding attendance at ministry events. This annual affirmation also adds rich meaning to the spiritual calling of board service and inspires high commitment.
  2. The CEO and the board will be singing from the same song sheet.
  3. Spouses of board members will review the annual affirmation statement each year and note Participant Hat commitments for the family calendar.
  4. Senior team members and all staff will have a common lexicon—the three hats—and will not hint or whine about board member engagement expectations that have not been agreed upon in advance.
  5. Volunteers (often a source of board prospects) will be educated about the appropriate role of the board and the organization’s commitment to leverage the strengths, spiritual gifts, and passion of each person. (Some board members, after all, should not be trusted with a hammer, saw, or paint brush on the annual work day if they are not gifted with those tools!)

Guilt and shaming are a poor substitute for clarity and inspiration. Think back to your last board meeting when there was a Participant Hat discussion. Did your board chair’s comments or your CEO’s body language communicate healthy, God-honoring governance? Or did the veiled expectations need a translation?

Your board members, similar to your volunteers, will respond when you appeal to high ideals, not mixed messages. Al Newell, the founder and CEO of High Impact Volunteer Ministry Development, says that if you pursue discipleship, motivation will follow:

Sustaining motivation is better understood as a by-product as opposed to a goal of itself. It is my experience that if you pursue discipleship with volunteers [and board members], motivation will follow. If volunteers see the fulfillment of their role as “obeying and serving God” rather than serving you or your organization, it will cause motivation to swell.[3]



Stop hinting and whining about board member attendance
at organizational events. Instead, include all
attendance expectations and dates in a simple tool,
The Board Member Annual Affirmation Statement.

  Board Action Steps:

  1. View and Engage: Leverage the ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 2: Balancing Board Roles.

  2. Create: Download “The Board Member Annual Affirmation Statement” (see the tools and templates in the ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 2) and customize it for your board.
  3. Order: ECFA Tools and Templates for Effective Board Governance: Time-Saving Solutions for Your Board by Dan Busby and John Pearson and download 22 templates, including the “Board Member Annual Affirmation Statement.”[4]



Lord, forgive us for hinting and whining and
communicating unhealthy, mixed messages
about attendance at ministry events.
Help us instead to communicate with clarity.  Amen.



[1] ECFA Governance Toolbox Series No. 2: Balancing Board Roles—Understanding the 3 Board Hats: Governance, Volunteer, Participant (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2013). Visit: www.ECFA.org/Toolbox.

[2] Visit the ECFA Knowledge Center, http://www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter for a sample board member annual affirmation statement. http://www.ECFA.org/Content/Board-Member-Annual-Affirmation-Statement-NP.

[3] Used by permission of the author, Al Newell, at www.newellandassociates.com.

[4] Dan Busby and John Pearson, ECFA Tools and Templates for Effective Board Governance: Time Saving Solutions for Your Board (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2019), 225-36.


From More Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: Effectiveness, Excellence, Elephants!, 2019, www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter.

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.