September 2, 2014


Board elections: Secret ballot or show of hands

Terrie TemkinTerrie Temkin

Terrie Temkin

When faced with bringing new members onto its governing board, many nonprofits struggle with the question of conducting those elections by public vote or secret ballot.

Perhaps most important, votes should not be proforma. I give extra points to any organization that questions how to move forward and with whom.

That shows that the nonprofit has sufficient depth of leadership to require a serious vote and is looking for the most effective means of achieving that. 

Both voting procedures are commonly used. I am unaware of one being used significantly more than the other. The approach a specific organization takes is often spelled out in that organization's bylaws.

If your bylaws do not specify the technique to use, consider the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The public vote is faster and everyone sees the will of the people. However, the results of a voice vote may be determined on the basis of the group that projects the loudest.

And, if the first candidate gets a particularly hearty response, those intending to vote for the second candidate may feel the majority has spoken and opt not to vote rather than be associated with what they perceive will be the losing side.

Even a show of hands can be inaccurate unless several people are counting and all arrive at the same number.

However, a secret ballot has its own problems. It takes longer. And, if the nominations were contentious, there may be a question about the validity of the vote and/or the subsequent count. 

Of course, this can be mitigated if ballots are numbered and accounted for, and if there are representatives from "both sides" counting the ballots.  

What is far more important than the type of vote is that you have a thoughtfully-considered list of criteria for board service.

That makes it easier for your governance or nominating committee to vet the nominees and assure the voting body of the capability of each person up for election to the board.

As long as each candidate meets the defined criteria, the format you ultimately choose shouldn't matter. Everyone can feel comfortable that any of the people on the ballot will represent the community well if elected.

Terrie Temkin is founding partner at the Miami, Fla.-based management consulting group CoreStrategies for Nonprofits Inc. For five years, her "On Nonprofits" column appeared biweekly in The Miami Herald.


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