Q: Would you please address the question of both husbands and wives serving on the same nonprofit board?
A: An organization that asks both a husband and wife to sit on its board reaps several benefits. Still, I would generally recommend against the practice. Why?
Let’s start with the advantages. First, most organizations look for board members that are bright, dynamic, and have an affinity for the mission, valuable skills and contacts. Finding such people is rarely an easy task. However, since individuals with these characteristics are often married to others with similar characteristics, interests and values, an organization can significantly pare its recruitment process if it can enlist two board members as a result of identifying one.
Second, board work is time-consuming. A spouse that is left at home is likely to become resentful of the time and energy his or her partner gives to an organization. Such resentment can make the contributing partner feel guilty – often guilty enough that he or she will begin spending less time with the organization. If, on the other hand, both partners volunteer with the same organization, the potential exists to get even more from each spouse than one would get from either individually because shared involvement means shared quality time. Shared quality time is likely to enhance a personal relationship, which makes further involvement in the organization desirable.
Third, when both a husband and wife are committed to the same organization it is more likely that they will make a larger financial contribution than if the organization was the pet project of only one or the other.
Despite these powerful benefits, I believe that the potential downside is significant when husbands and wives serve together on a board. An organization limits its reach into the community when it appoints couples with shared demographics and shared contacts. Equally important, the board can become dysfunctional if other board members believe – rightly or wrongly – that a couple is voting as a single unit, thereby diluting the impact they can make as individuals, or that a couple is constantly fighting. No one likes to be in the middle of a public argument. Then there is the question of what to do if one spouse is not carrying his or her weight.
As is so often the case, each organization has to weigh the pros and cons and decide for itself if it will invite spouses onto its board.