Recruiting great board members

So many organizations find themselves with lackluster boards. There are lots of reasons for this, from a focus on the trivial at board meetings to unskilled chair persons that drive good people away.

But in most of the lackluster boards I’ve worked with, the real reason has to do with who is sitting around that board table.

We’ve all run into boards where people were recruited simply to fill the slot — what I might call the “any warm body” syndrome. These directors were told on recruitment that they didn’t need to do anything for the organization but show up at meetings and they are certainly living “down” to that expectation.

Too many poor boards are too small. When you’ve got a board of six or seven people, you simply can’t expect them to handle all the governance tasks that a 15-20 person board can. Board members shouldn’t have to sit on more than one committee. You’re sure to make each individual feel overwhelmed and then guilty that they can’t fulfill your unreasonable expectations.

Over and over again, board members are recruited without regard for the work that lies ahead. When this happens, directors usually lack the passion, skills or knowledge that your nonprofit needs at this time and place.

You don’t have to settle for a lackluster board!

To turn recruitment around, first you need to identify the strategic issues facing your organization and how the board can contribute to movement on these issues.

Then ask “what type of people, with what skills, would be able to help us address these issues?”

Once you’re clear on what the board and individual directors can add, write up a few “ideal candidate profiles.”

This profile is another way of thinking about a board “matrix.” Your profiles will include both the attributes (ethnicity, age, socio-economic class, geography, gender, profession, etc) and the knowledge, skills and competencies needed on your board (things like nonprofit governance wonks, connectors, strategists, visionaries, fundraisers, or expertise more specific to your particular mission).

Next, assess who on the current board already fits some of those profile slots (or matrix). Identify where you have gaps and those are the slots to recruit for. Never, ever recruit a board member for only their attributes — attributes alone won’t move your organization forward. Board members also have to possess some knowledge, skill or competency that appears on your list in addition to their desired attribute.

Next, you’re ready to do some brainstorming around the Who. Who might fit our profile? Where would we find people who do, even if we don’t know them yet?

Start within your own donor or volunteer base. If you’ve created a bench-building organization, they are likely to be serving on a committee. If not, you may need to get more adventurous in looking for recruits.

Recruitment is a year round activity. Clip articles from the paper about individuals who may fill your recruitment criteria. Get to know these people and probe for their interests in your issues or organization. Ask program officers at your local community foundation who they know. Post board opportunities with the local volunteer center and with the community affairs managers at business in your area. Ask everyone you know. Check out faculty or staff at local colleges. Keep a running list of people you are interested in. Keep notes on your contacts. You may find that someone who couldn’t serve this year due to other commitments is ready in a year or two. When I served on the governance committee of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, we kept a running list of 20-30 people that we had our eye on for possible board service.

You don’t have to keep going to the usual suspects. There’s lots of untapped talent in our communities who would be interested in serving on your board if they were only asked.

When you do find a willing recruit, never underestimate the work or responsibility they are being asked to take on. Make sure to let people know exactly why you are recruiting them and what you want them to do for your organization. GET A COMMITMENT before you move them to a formal nomination.

Good luck.


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