Should you administer the ‘Marshmallow Test’ to new non-profit board prospects?

marshmallow testI’ve been on the road a lot lately. When this occurs, I typically look for eBooks to help pass the time during airport delays and other frustrating travel hiccups. Last week, I downloaded The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. I selected this work of non-fiction because I blogged about it on October 26, 2012 in a post titled “Does your non-profit agency pass ‘The Marshmallow Test’?” It was part of an ongoing series we called “Organizational Development Fridays” at DonorDreams blog, and it was based on OD blog posts at johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly”.

The Marshmallow Test blog post was one of my favorite posts during that time period. So, when I saw the eBook I knew that I just had to read it.

I suspect the next few DonorDreams posts this month will likely connect back to this book. Today, we are talking about the always elusive idea of what characteristics and traits make-up a productive non-profit board volunteer.

The Marshmallow Test explained

The Marshmallow Test (as it has been dubbed by the media) is an experiment to test self-control in small children. In a nutshell, here is how it works according to Walter Mischel, the book’s author and lead researcher:

“On the table were a desk bell and a plastic tray the size of a dinner plate, with two cookies in one corner of the tray and one in the other corner. Both the immediate and the delayed rewards were left with left with the children, to increase their trust that the treats would materialize if their waited for them as well as to intensify their conflict.”

Here were the rules:

  • The researcher would explain to the child that they had to leave the room for a little while. The child would be left alone with the rewards in plain sight.
  • The child could ring the bell at any time and the researcher would come back immediately.
  • If the child waited until the researcher came back without ringing the bell, then the child would earn the two cookies (aka marshmallows) on the plate in front of them.
  • If the child rang the bell and summoned the researcher back, then they would only earn one cookie.
  • The child had to remain in their seat and not wander off to play in other part of the room.
  • The child was allowed to eat one cookie at any time, but if they did then they forfeited their right to the second cookie.

Researchers observed behavior and timed how long various children took before they rang the bell or caved in and ate a treat.

In subsequent years, researchers have followed up on their research and found that kids who did better on the tests (exercising self-control and opting for the delayed reward) actually did better in life (e.g. income, retirement savings, weight control and health, etc)

Using marshmallows during board recruitment?

Of course, this is a whimsical question. I’m not suggesting you pull out marshmallows and administer the test as part of your agency’s board recruitment process, but the mental image makes me giggle.

However, as I read more and more of the book, I find myself wondering if some of the characteristics and traits of those who practice self-control should be added to our board development prospecting processes.

For example, the following is a list of key board member competencies and characteristics that I recently found included in a sample non-profit board member job description:

  • Has achieved recognition and status within the community.
  • Is knowledgeable about the social concerns of the community.
  • Has the resources (personal and/or corporate) to apply to the needs of the organization.
  • Is committed to youth and the agency’s mission.
  • Has the ability to listen, analyze, and think strategically.
  • Has the ability to work well with others and demonstrates tolerance of differing points of view.
  • Is willing to prepare for and regularly attend board meetings and relevant committee meetings.
  • Exhibits honesty and sensitivity.

In Chapter 8 “The Engine of Success: I Think I Can!” the author ends the chapter with the following list of characteristics and traits of successful people who exercise self-control and maintain an optimistic view of life:

  • pursue goals with persistence
  • develop optimistic expectations for success
  • cope with frustrations, failures and temptations
  • inhibit impulsive responses
  • develop mutually supportive, caring friendships

I couldn’t help but wonder if these characteristics and traits should be added to our prospecting criteria when searching for new non-profit board volunteers?

What criteria does your agency use as part of its board development cycle? How do you assess whether or not a prospect possesses those traits and characteristics? How many of your board volunteers would pass “The Marshmallow Test” if it were administered at the start of your next board meeting? What does that say about your board? 😉

Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on October 7, 2014, in Board development, nonprofit, organizational development and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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