Six roadblocks to board recruiting

Here’s my challenge to you:

In one minute or less, explain to a complete stranger what a nonprofit board does.

Now make it sound interesting enough that they’d want to serve on it.

A few years ago I came upon a report on nonprofit governance with the following statistic:

  • 90% of nonprofits find it ‘somewhat difficult’ or ‘very difficult’ to find qualified board members (1)

In the last sentences of the report, the author made this observation:

“Additional research is needed to better understand the barriers to obtaining board members.”

I might be going way out on a limb here 😉 , but here are six based on my own experiences.

Six barriers to recruiting board members for nonprofits

1. We don’t have great “word of mouth” working for us on the rewards of board service, mainly because most board members don’t experience any. Instead of engaging board members in the exciting, strategic work of community change making, we stick them in meetings where they fuss over ministrivia or get reported at. We barely train them or engage them. Too many board members are never sure of what they should be doing – especially if they’ve never served on a board before.

2. In a quick troll through Google, you can find multiple references from for-profit employers complaining about the hard time they have finding qualified employees. So, if wages aren’t sufficient to surface quality people, how about recruiting for a job that has long hours, high responsibility and no pay!

3. Too many nonprofits wait until the last minute to look for board members. It takes months, sometimes even years, to identify, find, cultivate and qualify individuals with the skills, knowledge and passion that you want in a board member.

4. We keep going to the usual suspects and then complaining that the same people are on too many boards. How is it that those chamber members were never reached, even within the organizations where they were already volunteering? Sadly, that Urban Institute report noted that boards are overwhelmingly made up of non-Hispanic whites and individual between the ages of 35 to 65.

5. Board jobs are complex, confusing, we expect too much of too few directors and we provide little support. I don’t know about you, but I’ve served as chair of a board or committees where I estimated that I volunteered, on average, close to 8 hours a week. Granted, those were organizations I loved and I took on a leadership position where lots of change was happening. But I have lots of flexibility in my job (which is in the nonprofit sector already) and my kids are now grown. But how many individuals can give even a fraction of that kind of time?

6. As a sector, we haven’t done the best job making the case for board service – especially when most people only hear about boards when there is a local scandal or government investigation.  The survey’s author even put out a call to the sector and its supporters: “sound practices and policies must be coupled with investment in people, by helping nonprofits obtain individuals willing and able to serve…” (emphasis added)

It’s unlikely that it will ever be “easy” to recruit qualified board members – and it probably shouldn’t be. Every organization needs to take its time to find and train qualified, passionate people who care about the mission and have the knowledge and skills needed at any given time. But it certainly would be nice to have a large pool of eager and ready recruits from which to choose, wouldn’t it?

* I went with: Nonprofit boards make sure that their organizations make a real difference in the quality of life in their communities and see to it that those organizations are both worthy and trustworthy of community support. You be the judge.

P.S. If you are in the 10% that isn’t having a difficult time recruiting board members, I’d love to hear from you.

(1) That number came from research by the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy of The Urban Institute. Titled Nonprofit Governance in the United States, Findings on Performance and Accountability from the first National Representative Study, the report analyzed feedback from the chief executive officers/executive directors of over 5,100 US nonprofits of various sizes.

This post is part of a longer article you’ll find with many others in the Articles section of this website.

8 responses to Six roadblocks to board recruiting

  1. Betsy Baker

    Great, practical information! Pay attention to this, nonprofits, it’s all true. Inform your Board, make it fun to serve and give them the tools needed to succeed.
    Betsy Baker, MPA

  2. Pamela Grow

    An excellent post Gayle! Have you ever read “The Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards?” The author talks about recruiting the 4 “W’s” – work, wealth, wisdom and women (I would add diversity). A passion for mission is key – and consistent training on the part of staff is mandatory.

  3. Gayle L. Gifford

    Thanks Pam. I haven’t read that one book, though I have to say I’m a real contrarian on Board fundraising thought.

    I’ve been trying to blow up those 3 Ws as necessities for board recruitment or expectations for years as I don’t think they apply to every organization and I don’t think every Board is necessarily tasked with fundraising when giving from individuals and private foundations is less than 20% of the entire public charity revenue mix. See my article Banish your Expectations of Board Fundraising

    I’m absolutely with you that IF fundraising by your Board is an essential part of your revenue strategy, then it is absolutely critical that professional staff work one-on-one with board members to enable a satisfying role for them in some aspect of the fundraising process.

    And overall, I would say that the responsibility for creating great Board members is the responsibility of the Board first, with support from staff second.


  4. Bunnie Riedel

    Great points all around…how many nonprofits advertise their board positions the same as they might do a job or interview prospective board members?

  5. Sandy Rees

    I find that there are people on Boards right now who don’t need to be on Boards. They say “yes” without knowing what they’re getting into and without knowing what their responsibilities are. This problem combined with last minute or poor recruiting creates the mediocre Boards that so many nonprofits have.

    Sandy Rees

  6. Sherrry Truhlar, CMP, BAS

    Well-written post, Gayle. When I visit with non-profits about their fundraising auctions, Board support often comes to the surface. Some have great Boards … others, not so much. To your points, giving clear expectations and training Board members is a big part of ensuring you have a good Board. I know that I myself would feel more confident volunteering to sit on a Board if I knew that it wasn’t a sink-or-swim, learn-on-the-job, drink-from-the-firehose situation.

Leave a reply

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.