Who’s on your nonprofit board: Partners, passengers, prisoners, protestors?

Have you heard of the 3 Ps of nonprofit boards?

Neither had I until last week.

I was discussing ideas for an upcoming board retreat with the chair of the board development committee. In describing the ideal board member, this trustee mentioned the 3Ps, something he learned from a colleague in years past.

Now, I had heard of boards described as contributing 3Ts ( time, treasure and talent) and 3Ws (wealth, wisdom and work) but had never heard of 3Ps.

When I asked him to explain, he described the Ps as follows:

Prisoners are the reluctant board members. They do not come voluntarily to their positions. Most likely they were assigned to serve on the board by the boss at their company. This term might also describe officers coerced into serving.

Passengers are good enough board members, but they are waiting to be told what to do in order to do more than just attend board meetings. They are usually in the majority on most boards.

Partners are those board members who voluntarily and enthusiastically take leadership. They act as partners with the CEO and other board members in building the future of the organization they serve.

I told this clearly partner board member this was a really intriguing concept I hadn’t discovered before. With his permission, I wanted to share this with you.

Prisoners, Passengers, Partners, Protestors.

After I got off the phone, I went looking online for the reference.

I found these terms used in the training world where, instead of 3, there are 4Ps – protestors, prisoners, passengers and participants.

Participants are the partners that my client described. One source that came from the coaching world described these participant/ partners as players.

Everyone seemed to describe passengers as along for the ride, most content to kick their feet back and not go out of their way to engage.

Protestor was the 4th P. These are the people who disagree with everything, are very challenging, often attack, making the experience unpleasant for the rest of the group. They seem to occur regularly enough in boards as you’ll find quite a lot of materials online if you search “dealing with difficult board members.”

Could your board benefit from these 4Ps?

I find shorthand descriptions such as these can be helpful as a way to spark self-reflection. Or they can serve as a quick diagnostic to develop strategies for engagement.

My wise Canadian colleague Brian Fraser of Jazzthink cautions not to use negative labels as another way to demonize board members. Brian suggests that you could use the terms on a scale, asking board members to think about what makes them feel like a _______ and what would get them to feel like another category.

The online materials I uncovered provide examples of using this concept in both ways: as a tool for self-reflection and as a diagnostic to help build a stronger team.

So, what do you think? Are you familiar with the 4Ps? Have you used them in your own board and with your board members? How?

For another way to think about board talents, see

Recruiting your board: 4 leadership roles to consider

P.S. I couldn’t find a source in any of the online mentions for who coined these terms. Perhaps you know?

2 responses to Who’s on your nonprofit board: Partners, passengers, prisoners, protestors?

  1. Diana Kern

    I have been doing nonprofit board consulting for a large nonprofit in Michigan and I have never heard of the 3-P’s or 4-P’s, but I love it! Thanks for sharing! Brought a smile to my face. Our organization uses the 3-W’s in determining who to recruit to the board. We ask board members to identify for themselves what percentage they bring in the 3-W’s. Work, Wealth and Wisdom. Of course we have definitions for this but it can be a great exercise.

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      Thank you for your comments. I’d love to hear more about that 3 W conversation. Do board members see them as all required by every board member? Do they see them as equal or equivalent? That is, let’s say I’m high on the wisdom quotient but low on the wealth scale. Is that equal to someone who might score themselves just the opposite? Wondering how the board values each of the 3 Ws.

Leave a reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.