Ever wonder why some nonprofits seem to always have great boards while others consistently flounder? Stellar boards don’t just happen by accident. It takes lots of planning, relationship building, and training. If you diligently follow these few best practices, you too, can build a superb board.
A high-functioning board of directors is not only essential to meeting legal requirements, but also critical in helping a nonprofit achieve its goals and mission. The effectiveness of a board’s performance depends on strategically identifying the skills, expertise, and contacts the board needs to achieve its goals, and then recruiting board members who reflect these characteristics.
Recruiting the right board members takes hard work — much of it done weeks or months before new board members are invited to join the board. The key is to create an intentional recruitment plan that clearly defines the kind of board members the organization needs and outlines a recruitment and orientation process carefully matched to your programs, operations, goals, and resource needs.
It All Starts With Your Board Governance Committee
Ideally, board recruitment is an ongoing process. Organizations with great boards always have a candidate pool where individuals move through various stages of cultivation, which includes serving on board committees.
When a board vacancy occurs, it is easier to rekindle communications with a cultivated individual than to start from scratch. While every board member should be involved in identifying potential candidates, the chief executive acts as a valuable partner with the governance committee in the search for new board members.
The governance committee’s task is to find the best candidates, convince them of the benefits of board service, present the candidates to the full board, and after the final nomination, to make sure the new board members are well equipped to do the best possible job. The governance committee’s first question to consider (as they start to formulate their board recruiting plan) is: what are our key strategic priorities, and what new skills or expertise might we need on our board to help us achieve those priorities?
Creating a simple grid to categorize the various expertise areas needed on the board will provide a quick answer to this question. Keeping this grid up-do-date ill ensure you don’t have to start from scratch every time you recruit more board members.
Recruiting for Diversity is Critical
Be sure to include all considerations in the board profile grid such as age, ethnicity, geography, skill set, community connections, experience, and any additional categories you want to consider for a well-rounded board. Depending on the domain in which the nonprofit operates and the beneficiaries it serves, the board may want to include specific areas of expertise, perhaps functional or geographic.
For example, an organization focused on healthcare issues may want a few board members with expertise in that subject area. Similarly, a nonprofit that’s primarily serving underprivileged families in India or Africa will likely want to include a few board members who are either from the area served or who have a deep knowledge of the service area. Dedicated board members typically bring far more to the table than just their expertise in a given area.
The value of a board member is not only what’s in his or her head, but also the networks and the reputational capital they bring that allows them to contribute deeply to the organization. The most effective boards are those that are able to bring together a diverse group of people who bring a wide range of thoughts, experiences, knowledge, and perspective.
Diversity should be an integral part of the recruitment process rather than tacked on at the end of the process. Diversity goals for the board can include representation from communities the organization serves. Consumer representatives can add a unique perspective to the board’s work. Involving people who are served by the organization is not just a good thing to do; it can be the pathway to making the organization’s services higher quality.
Now it’s Time to Identify Great Candidates
After an organization has evaluated how the composition of its board can advance its strategic priorities and has identified the board roles it needs to fill, it can begin identifying potential board candidates. Research other organizations with similar missions — look at who is serving on their board.
These are typically people who are passionate about your cause as well. Perhaps some of these people are finishing their board term or maybe they can suggest others who are aligned with your organization’s mission. One sure fire way to find high quality board members is to encourage every board member to use their network to constantly identify potential candidates.
When board members attend events or community meetings, they can look around the room and watch for individuals who might add value to their board. Having informal side conversations with these people about the organization will begin to lay a foundation for future board recruitment.
This intentional networking can be richly rewarding. Be sure these conversations focus on the organization’s mission rather than how prestigious the board position may be. The best board members are passionate about the cause rather than eager to promote their personal agenda.
Conduct Your Due Diligence by Asking These Four Key Questions:
1. Can you fulfill our board’s fiduciary and legal oversight responsibilities?
These responsibilities can include approving financial plans, monitoring financial health, ensuring financial controls are in place, ensuring independent audits are conducted, managing key risks, and ensuring all legal requirements are met. The specific duties will vary based on the size and complexity of the organization and may change over time as an organization grows.
2. How have you already demonstrated a passion for organizations like ours?
People familiar with high-impact boards know passion for the mission can be shown in many ways. It could be as straightforward as previous nonprofit boards or volunteer experience for a similar organization. Maybe the candidate grew up around the Boys & Girls Club or YMCA, for instance, and believes deeply in the value of youth-serving organizations.
3. Do you fundamentally have the time to serve on our board?
Those new to the sector often underestimate the amount of time required to be an effective board member. In fact, the time commitment for many nonprofit boards can be substantial and should not be minimized in order to attract board members.
All board members must be able to meet the basic requirements of board service. At most nonprofits this means, at a minimum, preparing for and attending monthly board meetings, serving on at least one board committee, working on special projects, and advocating on behalf of the organization. If, for example, a candidate already serves on many boards, they most likely will not have adequate time to devote to yours.
No matter how enticing a potential board member may seem, if they can’t devote adequate time and attention to your organization do not recruit them. Lack of a single board member’s participation discourages the whole board.
4. Are you able to meet the board fundraising expectation?
The role of board member fundraising varies widely within the nonprofit sector. Boards that have a revenue strategy based on raising funds from individuals and businesses often need board members able to personally make substantial financial contributions and willing to solicit donations from others. For other nonprofits — such as organizations that rely heavily on government grants — fundraising may not be a significant board responsibility.
The key is to be clear about your board fundraising requirements before recruiting begins. Then explain those requirements to potential board members as part of the recruiting process. You want board members who are fully engaged with your board activities, including fundraising.
At the other extreme, organizations that make the ability to raise funds the sole qualification for board membership can actually diminish their board’s overall effectiveness. It can be de-motivating for hardworking board members when other members are allowed to simply write a check and show up for luncheons.
If someone is fully invested and also able to write a check, that’s great; but don’t go after them just because of wealth. Disengaged board members can make the board dysfunctional. Strong boards have one thing in common: Everyone is engaged.
The Most Important Step is Ensuring Cultural Fit
It is also important to determine whether the candidate will be a good cultural fit with the rest of the board and the organization itself. Look for people whose motive is to advance the mission rather than their own personal gain — people who are good listeners and ask probing, thoughtful questions.
After talking to a board candidate, the governance committee holds a debriefing session to discuss how the candidate fits the board culture and to identify the specific board role the candidate could play.
Always Remember That It’s a Partnership
It is important throughout the recruiting process to be clear about board member responsibilities and to make sure that candidates truly understand the organization’s expectations before they commit to the job.
You might want to create a Statement of Understanding to spell out what the board member is agreeing to do, as well as what the CEO and Board Chair agree to provide.
Being crystal clear about what everyone can expect from the partnership is an important element of board recruitment strategy, enabling you to build strong relationships with board members, so that everyone can work toward accomplishing the organization’s strategic goals as partners.
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