Do you need the matrix?

By     Oct 28, 2014

The Audit Committee will see you now.

What is a board matrix? A board matrix (composition grid, etc.) for the governing board of a nonprofit organization is a tool that methodically attempts to first inventory the needs of an organization at board level, then the alignment between these needs and both current and potential board members. These needs can include skills & competencies, intrinsic qualities (race/ethnicity, gender, age, residence, sexual orientation), resources, networks or anything the organization values. Matrices range wildly in complexity, from simple to detailed. Neither approach is inherently superior or more sophisticated: a board matrix should be scaled to the qualities of the organization and its board: size, complexity and resources.

When is it time to use a board matrix? A good time is when you are evaluating your serving board, analyzing your board’s alignment with your current strategy (or a new one) or recruiting new board members. And yes, you should always be doing all of these.

Do I even need a board matrix? Jan Masaoka, publisher of Blue Avocado and CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits, argues “No” (worth reading in its entirety) and makes some excellent points in doing so:

…board composition matrices focus our attention
on what people are, rather than on what the

organization needs board members to do…

Instead: focus on actions needed.

This is a critical distinction. It also encourages the board to rigorously consider what the organization’s needs actually are – and that they shift over time. They are unique to each organization; there is no universal list appropriate for all organizations. Unfortunately, the rate of change in the organization’s needs and the rate of change in board composition are unlikely to be neatly aligned.

Other points are less convincing:

Nearly all boards feel weighed down by demographic diversity
imperatives…too often we end up with someone who lets us check the

demographic box but never becomes engaged.


This is a good point, as far as it goes. While important to focus on actions needed, your board also needs to reflect the community it seeks to serve – a job that many boards can do better. This is an intrinsic good, although one with complex effects on a board’s ability to make decisions. There are many categories of diversity and the ones aren’t readily seen are just as important as those that are.

Categories and Types of Diversity

Social-category differences

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Physical abilities

Differences in knowledge or skills

  • Education
  • Functional knowledge
  • Information or expertise
  • Training
  • Experience
  • Abilities

Differences in values or beliefs

  • Cultural background
  • Ideological beliefs
  • Personality differences
  • Cognitive style
  • Affective disposition
  • Motivational factors

Organizational- or community-status differences

  • Tenure or length of service
  • Title
  • Differences in social and network ties
  • Work-related ties
  • Friendship ties
  • Community ties
  • In-group memberships

You don’t suffer from illusory superiority, do you? You can keep these dimensions in mind when considering your organization’s needs, your board and potential new members without a crutch like a board matrix. Right? The question of whether you need a board matrix is better seen as a rhetorical one. It is a valuable tool, used deliberately.

How do you build the right board matrix for your organization?

Now we are in the thick of it without a one-handed economist. Your time as a board member or CEO is your most precious asset, and it’s finite. Ergo, it is critical to match the complexity (in the using and the building) with that of your board – and your organization. Who are your users? Your board? CEO? Nominating committee? External stakeholders? What problem does the matrix solve for them? Look at a variety of matrices so you have a good sense of their scope. The value of a well-constructed board matrix is at least twofold: agreeing to and “owning” what is most important for the organization and building a tool that will help you better achieve these objectives. Now, go to work!

[1] Elizabeth Mannix and Margaret A. Neale, “What Differences Make a Difference? The Promise and Reality of Diverse Teams in Organizations,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol. 6, No. 2, October 2005, 31-55.