How to Recruit New Board Members

September 16, 2014

I am currently being recruited for a new board. It’s been awhile since that happened. Ever since having kids, time with them has gotten very valuable to me and I’ve had to cut back my volunteer work. I love serving on boards, so I’ve had a rule for myself: I only get to be on one board at a time. (Yes, I’m kind of a nonprofit junky.)

My time on one board is wrapping up and it just so happens that another board is interested in bringing me on. I’ll report back if it happens.

But the process has really gotten me thinking. Do you know how to recruit for your board in a strategic way?

There’s so much to consider: skills, wealth, diversity, personal qualities, and the overall mix… But I think it got it all in here! At the end is a recommended schedule for a nominations committee to manage the process on behalf of the board.

Read on, and I hope this is helpful to your nonprofit as it looks at adding new board members. 

Sincerely,

Erik

boardrecruiting

On Board Recruiting

At some point, probably soon, your board will have to deal with finding new board members. Ideally, you will have a wealth of options, and can pull from your donor base, your volunteer group, your committee members, or prominent leaders in your community.

If you want that full roster of potential board members, though, you can’t start two months before your next fiscal year. You must give this process time. Below are some of the tasks your nominations or governance committee should start early in the fiscal year.

First, evaluate your board’s skills

A board should be more like a chess set than a checkers set. In a set of checkers, all pieces are equal and can do the same thing. In a chess set, though, each piece has a different function; some can move diagonally, others only forward and back. Some can jump other pieces; others are most effective dealing with the immediate squares around them. Together they form a formidable team, complementing each other’s strengths and backing up each other’s weaknesses.

What are the different skills your board has? Here are some questions to ask yourself, either individually or as a committee.

Do your board members have professional experience in:

  • Your nonprofit’s area of service?
  • Law?
  • Finance or accounting?
  • Human Resources?
  • Business?
  • Marketing?
  • Fundraising?
  • Capital campaign experience? (if your board is considering moving down that path)

If you board is missing talent in one of these areas, then finding someone with those skills is a good place to start as you think about recruitment. In addition, if you are about to embark on a specific strategic push, then it might make sense to continue to build that strength. As an example: just because you have someone with business experience already, it still might make sense to add more people with similar skills if you are preparing a new retail operation.

Next, evaluate your board’s diversity

Your board should be made up of diverse people.

Boards need a strong diversity of opinion, otherwise they run the risk of falling into a “group think,” because there are no different viewpoints to counter their limited experience. A board with only college graduates will not be as smart as a board with college graduates and someone with a GED. Counter-intuitive, no? But the diversity of experience makes a board smarter.

There are many kinds of diversity you might want to see on a board: gender, race, sexual orientation, class, education, religious beliefs, political views, and a lot more.

That said, a board with diversity in educational experience and political views, but that is still all-white or all-male has a problem. A significant one.

To be clear, the problem is not that this non-diverse board has an “image” problem, or anything as simple as that.

A board with gender and ethnic diversity is two things. First, it is more just. (I expect that statement is self-evident.) Second, it is better able to serve the public than a non-diverse board.

I want to really unpack that statement before we keep going. So let’s ask ourselves, why does gender and racial diversity in particular make a board stronger?

It results from a long history of white male privilege, both legally and culturally, in the United States. Without a doubt, significant strides have been made. But that legacy remains hard to shake. To many women and minorities, that legacy expresses itself a hundred times a day in ways that make that it clear that they are the “other.” On the other hand, straight white males, like myself, are so insulated from this reality that we often have to deliberately go out of our way to see how pernicious racial and gender bias and discrimination truly is.

In other words, a board that is all-male, or all-white, or both, has a massive blind spot, and that blind spot is affecting how the nonprofit beneath it functions at its most basic level.

The issues of race and gender affect society in a variety of different ways, some big, some small. When it comes to nonprofits, they affect the kinds of services nonprofits deliver and they affect how they are delivered. A board without diversity is more likely to be blind to ways that the nonprofit they govern is falling into these traps.

And thus… a theater announces a new season with only white male playwrights. An educational nonprofit pays women thirty percent less than their male counterparts. An environmental nonprofit never arranges a work party to clean the creek in the “bad part” of town. A civic group orders a new set of nametag frames—blue for men, and pink for women. A social services nonprofit discovers that even though the community they serve is twenty percent black, only five percent of the people they serve are.

In this last example, a non-diverse board may not even think to ask about the racial demographics of the population they serve and compare it with the racial demographics of their community. A board with real diversity very likely will.

Again, this is not just about image—although, yes, if a newspaper starts to cover any of the above examples it will likely be a damaging blow to those nonprofits. This is about service. Your nonprofit is here for everyone.

The public at large—as expressed in the special tax designation they have allowed your nonprofit and in countless other ways—is counting on you to serve your community. All of it. A key step toward ensuring that you are is by demonstrating that at the very top, where decisions are made, your board reflects the diversity of your community.

Are there any exceptions when diversity on a board should not be a goal?

No.

Really?

Yes.

A Catholic organization will likely have a board made up with many people who share a Catholic faith. But not all members will necessarily be Catholic, and within that group of Catholics, there should be real gender and racial diversity. After all, there are more than one billion Catholics worldwide and 75 million in the Unites States—something tells me there is a lot of opportunity for diversity there.

A women’s shelter may have a lot of women on the board, but let’s not forget that the women the shelter serves are escaping domestic violence, rape, or other abuses that are almost certainly perpetrated by men. Given that, shouldn’t men who are willing to stand up against this abuse be part of the ministry to these women?

All organizations should reflect diversity.

Really? Even the NAACP should have a diverse board?

Yes. Stop asking.

First off, you might be surprised to learn that NAACP does have board members who are not black. Their mission, in fact, says nothing about African-Americans, as you might expect: The mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination.

That seems like something we should all be able to get behind.

A diverse board will help all nonprofits better live up to their mission.

Ask a board to self-identify

Hopefully the above is understood. But there is still an important question: how do you evaluate the board’s diversity?

Let me give you a hint. The governance committee doesn’t just sit down and assign different races to people. You can’t assume that you can tell someone’s race by looking. That’s how you wind up accidentally labeling someone who identifies as “Pacific Islander” as “Native American.” You don’t know until you ask.

At a board meeting, the governance chair should pass around a questionnaire to every board member. This is an optional form, allowing board members to self-identify to whatever level they see fit. The governance chair should say plainly that they are gathering data on the board’s diversity, and that they don’t want to guess. If a board member wants to know how it will be used, the answer is (likely) three-fold:

  1. internal data for use at the board level;
  2. reporting to grant-making organizations (foundations often ask for statistics on the diversity of the board, staff, or clientele served);
  3. and reporting to the public through the annual report or possibly other means.

The information on the questionnaire, therefore, shouldn’t be considered confidential. Board members should answer only those of their choosing. You may decide not to have names on the questionnaires as well, in case someone is uncertain about identifying as a certain sexual orientation or age. Either way is fine: the main issue is the make-up of the board as a whole, not the specific details of any one member.

The form should have a place for gender, race, and age. Since you’re going through the trouble of making the form, though, you may also want to consider sexual orientation.

Have a place for them to mark their identified gender, and after “male” and “female,” include an “other” with a place for someone to write in their own. (You might think this is silly, but people who don’t identify with their perceived gender don’t think it’s silly at all. You won’t know how someone identifies until you ask.)

Have a place for them to mark their identified race. The census designations are useful choices here, but again, include an “other” with a blank.

Have a place for age, with categories split by decade, or by every twenty years (0 – 19, 20 – 39, 40 – 59, 60+).

Have a place for them to mark their sexual orientation (straight, gay, bisexual, asexual, and again—other).

This data should be collected and presented back to the board either during a retreat or at a later board meeting. Ideally, using publicly available census data or other free online information, you may want to present it against the demographics of your town or county. No immediate action needs to be taken necessarily, but creating an awareness of the issue is an important first step.

Ask for help

If after reading this section you think that your board would have a hard time discussing this topic, please know there are many organizations and consultants who help boards grapple with these issues. An outside facilitator can help your board and nonprofit through this process.

Check Terms and Term Limits

The board president, Executive Director, and governance committee should know early—likely within the first month or two of the fiscal year—which board members are term-limited out of standing for another term at the end of the year. That is the minimum number of new board members you will need to replace them.

Next, you should know which board members are finishing out a term and are eligible to stand for another one. You don’t have to know if they are planning to stand for their second term (they may not know it themselves yet). But if you add this number to the first, you will know the maximum number of possible number of new board members you will need to find.

If you’ve staggered your board terms correctly, this number shouldn’t be more than a third of your board.

Of course, board members are not just interchangeable warm bodies. The board members leaving your board will be taking with them a certain set of skills, experience, and insight. Either a governance committee or a nominations committee needs to review the assessments of board skills and have a serious (and candid) discussion about what skills they are losing (or just might lose), what skills they want to replace, and what skills they would like to add to the board.

Brainstorm Potential New Members

At least six months before the start of the next fiscal year, the governance committee should brainstorm potential new board members. Places to look are: volunteers, committee members, donors, business leaders, community leaders, past board members, leaders of partner organizations, and representatives of the people you serve.

Another way to brainstorm about potential people it is to look at this list of qualities I look for in board members, and think about who comes to mind. Do any particular skills or qualities make you think of someone in particular?

Shared Vision

  • Familiarity with the nonprofit and its mission
  • A record of philanthropic giving to the nonprofit

Personal Traits

  • An ability to work in groups as a leader or as a follower
  • Enough courage to stand up for an unpopular position in front of a group of peers
  • A willingness to be a team player when it’s needed
  • A willingness to roll up one’s sleeves and do a little work when requested
  • A willingness to listen

Experience and Connections

  • Previous board experience
  • A particular skill needed by the board at that time (more on this in a second)
  • Ability to read a financial report and understand financial projections
  • The time to attend board meetings and committee meetings
  • Comfort with email and email etiquette
  • Good connections in the community or with the population served

Who Are Commonly Sought-After Board Members?

In my experience, there are certain types of people that boards—no matter what kind of nonprofit they run—want to recruit. Knowing these common traits might also help you in your brainstorm.

Boards are often looking for people with a finance or legal background.

Their services are often in high demand (lawyers) or they can open up doors (bankers), so they can be very hard to woo onto your board. If you have one within your sphere, definitely think of them as candidates.

Again, they can be hard to get. (Maybe nonprofits try to take advantage of them too much and they are wary about accepting?) Don’t automatically assume a banker will be your treasurer and don’t expect a lot of free legal advice from a lawyer. They might want to be on your board precisely because they want to do something that is different from work. Give them the space for that.

Boards often want members who are connected politically.

This can be helpful—to have a city councilmember or an elected official in your corner when a state or city funding contract is up for review. Keep in mind, though, that sometimes elected officials can do more good off your board, where they don’t have a conflict of interest supporting you. They may also not be frequent attendees. Sometimes former elected officials can get you the “access” you are looking for without those issues.

Boards often want members who are wealthy.

As people step down from your board and new people step up, ideally your board will get wealthier. This means more money in donations, and better connections with other wealthy donors. On the whole, you should be looking to increase your board’s average giving with new members. Good donors should always be considered for the board.

When new candidates for the board are interviewed, you should feel OK telling them the average board gift and letting them know the board is looking to increase it. This sets expectations, but their reaction will also give you a hint of someone’s possible capacity.

That said, this is a slow process. Don’t spend your time strategizing about how to get a local “big name” multi-millionaire onto your board. Focus on improving the board’s annual average gift size every year. It’s a lot more practical than a moon-shot attempt to get Bill Gates to join your board.

Board Recruiting Is About Relationships

In The Little Book of Gold: Fundraising for Small (and Very Small) Nonprofits, I caution nonprofits leaders about trying to tell someone about their nonprofit while simultaneously asking for money for it. People won’t give (or won’t give much) to a nonprofit they are just now learning about.

The same is true of asking someone to be on a board. “Let me tell you about this nonprofit I love… Say, would you like to join the board?”

Board members should have a relationship with the nonprofit to be good candidates for the board. You might hear a board member say, “My good friend Jerry is passionate about the issues we address every day, and he is great on boards. I know he’s not familiar with what we do specifically, but I think he’d be a great board member.”

Sometimes, this kind of cold invitation will pay off. But generally you will do better to introduce them to the nonprofit early in the nominations process and then ask them to join later (even if it’s just a few months later).

It makes a lot more sense to invite Jerry to attend the annual fundraising breakfast, to take a tour of the facilities, or to serve on a committee. This is one reason why having a nominations brainstorming session early in the fiscal year is a good idea—you have time to get people into your sphere.

A Quick Note on Relationships And Trying To Recruit A More Diverse Board

Non-diverse boards might find themselves in a Catch-22. So they’ve decided to be more diverse—but where to start? You should know that a board that has determined they need to diversify might find it to be slow going at first. As I’ve said, the most likely candidates are committee members, members, donors, volunteers, and other partners. If you don’t have a diverse board, you may also not have a diverse pool of potential candidates to pull from.

Just like the board member above who recommended “Jerry” should first get him into the nonprofit’s sphere of influence before asking him to join the board, the same is true if you want to add diversity to your candidate pool.

In addition, demonstrating a commitment to diversity is about more than just the racial or gender make-up of your board. A nonprofit that is working to grow their diversity at all levels—including programming, marketing, and operations—should be able to find diverse people to reflect that on the board. A nonprofit that is not making real changes, but still wants to find people of color or more women to serve on the board will more likely struggle to find candidates. A person of color or a woman will easily be able to see that they are being recruited to be a “token” representative on the board. If you are truly committed to diversity at all levels, your board and nonprofit will need to demonstrate that in your actions before you can expect to significantly increase the diversity of the board.

Inviting People To Stand For Nomination

At this point you should have an idea of how many seats you have to fill; the skills, experience, and diversity you’d like to add to the board; and maybe some possible names.

The governance or nominations committee should make a presentation to the full board about all of this. Early on, they should ask the board to be thinking about high-quality candidates to consider approaching. These candidates don’t have to meet the exact profiles of the ideal board member that the committee has identified. But they should still be good fits.

Board members should use their relationships and ask their connections if they would “like to be nominated.” Again, board members don’t just get to invite someone to join the board and expect that it is a done deal. There should be no expectation that everyone nominated will be accepted. In fact, a nominations committee should look for at least twice the number of potential candidates to ensure they have a good pool of people to consider.

How To Vet Nominees

Whomever nominates a potential board member should ask the nominee for a short bio and give the nominee’s contact information to the chair of the nominations committee. Candidates for the board should expect to have to provide information such as resume, to fill out a questionnaire, or to attend an in-person meeting with the nominations committee (or some combination of all three).

If someone balks—“Jerry just doesn’t have the time for that. Do you really have to meet with him? Can’t you just go by his reputation [or my recommendation]?”—then that should be a pretty big red flag. A candidate not willing to prepare a short bio or meet for thirty minutes to be interviewed is not going to be a very hard worker once on the board.

(That said, I totally sympathize with candidates for a board who don’t want to stand for a “real” election by a vote of the membership where some nominees “win” and some nominees “lose.” A board that puts forward to their membership more names than they have seats for, knowing that some candidates will lose that election, is going to have a harder time during recruiting than a board that doesn’t do this.)

As early as possible in the process, candidates should also be given some documents early in the process. The most common would be the profit and loss statement and the balance sheet. Some nonprofits have a “memorandum of understanding” for all board members, and that would be a good document to add as well. If it’s as easy as attaching a PDF to an email, you might as well include a strategic plan, the bylaws, or the annual budget as well. None of this should be secret anyway, so feel free to share it with a candidate interested in the board. If you can distribute this information before candidate interviews, then pay attention when you meet them to which candidates appear to have reviewed the material and which haven’t.

Presenting Candidates to the Board

Once the nominations committee has met with candidates, it should discuss the candidates and bring a preferred list of names to the board with a secondary list of names as well. This could be as simple as ranked list, or it could be more specific—“If we can’t get Mary, then we would want Dennis instead. If we can’t get Jerry, then we would want Alice.”—based on the particular mix of skills and strengths the board is trying to create.

Board members may want to know why the committee is recommending the slate of nominees over someone they nominated (and might be friends with). The committee should be honest about the decision-making process but focus more on the strengths of their candidates than on the weaknesses of those they aren’t recommending.

After discussion, the names and their order should be approved in one vote, unless there is significant disagreement about a single candidate. This is one area where the policy of something coming before the board one month, with a vote on it the next, probably shouldn’t apply, though the spirit of it should. Ideally, a board will already be familiar with the names under consideration from the previous meeting. That meeting—not the one with the final slate of recommended candidates—would have been the time to object to one of the names or to advocate on someone’s behalf.

Sometimes board members might have personal information they don’t want to share in the group setting (“I worked on a board with Jerry and he was actually really hard to work with.”) Board members should call the governance chair with these concerns as early as possible, and they should expect to be able to offer their opinion without it becoming public knowledge on the board. They should also be understanding if Jerry is one of the final candidates despite their personal misgivings.

All in all, if the nominations committee has kept the board informed throughout, there should not be any major surprises about the list of final candidates. The vote should be quick and easy.

To protect the feelings of the candidates not chosen, I recommend the committee begin its work quickly after the vote. Once approved, the governance committee should call and email the candidates the board has approved the next day. If someone wants to back out at this point, the committee will ideally have a back-up name approved by the board. Those people should be contacted quickly as well. Only once the nominated candidates have been reached and agreed to serve on the board should the committee notify those who weren’t selected.

Of course, no one likes being passed over. Candidates who weren’t selected should be reminded that it’s about more than just the individuals considered, but about the mix of skills on the board. For good quality candidates that there just wasn’t room for, the committee should encourage them to take a seat on a committee or otherwise further their relationship with the nonprofit.

New Board Member Orientation

After a new board member has been, I’ve found it’s very helpful to schedule an orientation a few weeks before the first board meeting of the fiscal year.

New board members have steep learning curves, and starting with an orientation early is a good way to help them get up to speed.

An orientation should be about 90 minutes. There should be time for the recent history of the organization and the board, a discussion of the big issues the board is looking at, time for the financials, and time for Q&A. It would be helpful to distribute copies of the most recent board packet so board members can see how information is presented and ask questions. Usually these meetings should be lead by the President or President-Elect, and the Executive Director.

Should You Have Formal Mentorship of New Board Members?

Some boards assign a “veteran” board member to be the mentor to the new board member. Basically, this is just a way to help a new board member adjust. They mentor might take the new board member out for coffee after a couple months of meeting and see how it’s going. He or she might be available for a phone call or email questions.

The process should be managed by the governance committee. It would involve identifying the mentors, setting expectations, and perhaps an anonymous survey of the new board members at the end of the year to see how it went.

That said, I’ve seen more nonprofits talk about mentorship than actually implement it. So if it’s one too many things on the plate of your committee and board, it’s probably fine to let go until you have more time to focus on it.

Schedule for Handling Nominations and Recruiting

A nominations committee usually handles the coordination of reviewing candidates for the board. They should be expected to lay out a plan for this before they start. Here’s an example of what I mean:

  • October—Nominations committee evaluates term limits, diversity, and skills and attempts to estimate the number of board members they will need and the skills they are looking for.
  • November—Nominations committee strategically identifies possible board members to bring closer to the organization.
  • January—Nominations committee lays out schedule for nominations. Committee asks board members who are eligible if they are returning for another term; committee identifies ideal number of new board members and skills for which the board would like to recruit.
  • February—Open nominations. Ask board members to submit names and bios, include a blurb in the email newsletter.
  • March—Confirm interest with nominees and schedule interviews.
  • April—Interview candidates, and review board responsibilities and expectations with them. Committee makes final recommendations.
  • May—Elect candidates to the board for their term starting in July.
  • June—Nominations committee hands off names to the governance committee for board orientation.
  • July—The new board members start their term.

This timeline has a full six months of meetings for the nominations committee. Some small boards might be able to do it in four, but I wouldn’t suggest pushing it further than that. It’s because it can be so time-consuming that this committee is often distinct from the governance committee, which might not be able to devote that much meeting time to this topic.

Start Over

Now that it’s a new fiscal year, it’s time to start the whole process over again! Yes, looking for new board members might seem like a never-ending task. But as the quality of the board improves—thanks to the hard work of identifying, interviewing, and preparing new board members—you will find that overall quality of your applicant pool improves too. In other words, the job should get a little bit easier every year, until the hardest problem you have is choosing between too many great candidates.

Thank you!

If you have made it this far, thank you so much for reading! I sincerely hope that this has been a useful tool. If you found it helpful, please share it with your board or other peers.

Also, I’d like offer you something that I hope is useful. Download a free preview of “The Little Book of Boards” and get the first chapter covering the basics of board responsibilities. This might be perfect tool to get your board back on track! I hope you check it out! Improving your board means a better nonprofit and an easier life for the Executive Director.

Thanks again,

Erik

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