Spoiler alert: A high-functioning board of directors is not only essential to meeting legal requirements; it’s also critical in helping your nonprofit achieve its goals and mission. The effectiveness of your board’s performance depends on strategically identifying the skills, expertise, and contacts the board needs to achieve its goals – 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 nonprofit needs and outlines a recruitment and orientation process that is carefully matched your programs, operations, goals, and resource needs.
Board Governance Committee
Board recruitment is an ongoing process. Your nonprofit should always have a candidate pool where individuals move through various stages of cultivation, which can include serving on board committees. When a vacancy occurs, it is easier to rekindle communications than to start from scratch. While every board member should be involved in identifying potential candidates, the Executive Director partners WITH the governance committee in the search for new board members.
The governance committee’s task is to find the best candidates, share 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. (How? With a solid board orientation, education and onboarding.)
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 matrix to categorize the various expertise areas needed on the board will provide a quick answer to this question. Need a matrix? Send me an email and I’ll share mine!
Pro Tip: Keep your matrix up-do-date to ensure you don’t have to start from scratch every time you recruit more board members.
Some thoughts about recruiting for diversity
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 niche in which the nonprofit operates and the community it supports, the board may want to include specific areas of expertise, perhaps functional or geographic.
Dedicated board members typically bring far more to the table than just their expertise. The value of a board member is not only their skill sets and experience, but also the networks and the reputational capital they bring that allow them to contribute deeply to the organization.
The most effective boards are those who assemble 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. Community or member representatives can add a unique perspective to the board’s work. Involving people who are served by the nonprofit is not just a good thing to do; it can be the pathway to making the organization’s services higher quality.
Identifying great candidates
After a nonprofit 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 nonprofits with similar missions—look at who is serving on their board/s. 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 his/her network to regularly identify potential candidates. When board members attend events or community meetings, encourage them to look around the room watching for individuals who might add value to the board. Having informal side conversations with these people about the organization will lay a foundation for future board recruitment. This intentional networking can be richly rewarding and lead to onboarding board members are passionate about the cause rather than eager to promote their personal agenda. Conversations should focus on the nonprofit’s mission, rather than how prestigious the board position may be.
Conducting due diligence
As part of its early due diligence, the nonprofit should ask board candidates four key questions:
- Can you fulfill our board’s fiduciary and legal oversight responsibilities?
These responsibilities can include approving financial plans, monitoring the nonprofit’s financial health, ensuring financial controls are in place, ensuring there are independent audits, managing key risks, and ensuring all legal requirements are met. The specific duties will vary based on the size and complexity of the nonprofit and may change over time as an organization grows
- How have you demonstrated a passion for groups like ours?
People familiar with high-impact boards said passion for the mission can be shown in many ways. This can look like professional involvement via marketing or sponsorship contributions or personal philanthropic contributions. It could also be that the potential board applicant has personal experience with your mission.
- Do you have the time to serve on our board?
People familiar with nonprofit board service said that those who are 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 preparing for and attending monthly board meetings, serving on at least one board committee, working on special projects and advocating on behalf of your nonprofit. No matter how enticing a potential board member may seem, if she/he/they can’t devote adequate time and attention to your nonprofit, do not recruit them. A whole board can be discourage by the lack of participation of a single board member.
- Are you able to meet the board fundraising expectation?
The role of fundraising by board members varies widely within the nonprofit sector. Boards that have a revenue strategy based on raising funds from individuals and businesses often need board members who are able to personally make substantial financial contributions and who are willing to solicit donations from others.
The key is to be clear about your organization’s board fundraising requirements before recruiting begins. Then, explain those requirements to potential board member as part of the recruiting process. You want board members who are fully engaged with your board activities, including fundraising.
At the other extreme, nonprofits 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 hard-working board members when other members are allowed to simply write a check and show up for events. 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.
Ensuring cultural fit
In addition to determining whether a board candidate meets specific requirements, it is important to determine whether the candidate will be a good cultural fit with the rest of the board and the nonprofit itself. Look for people whose motive is to advance the mission rather than their own personal gain—people who are good listeners and who ask probing, thoughtful questions.
After talking to a board candidate, the governance committee should hold a debriefing session to discuss how the candidate would fit in with the board culture and identify the specific board role the candidate could play.
Remember, 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 nonprofit’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 Executive Director 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 nonprofit’s strategic goals as partners.
Stuck or frustrated in your board recruitment process? Schedule Nonprofit Therapy with me and we’ll talk it through.