Lack passionate recruits for your board? Create them.

VP photoOne of the axioms of board recruitment is that you should only recruit onto your board those people who are already passionate about your organization. You’ve probably even heard me say that.

In my chapter in the Essential Fundraising Handbook for Small Nonprofits, I explain the benefits of having passionate members on your board.

But what if you are in an organization that lacks passionate recruits for your board. Maybe you don’t have a natural constituency. Maybe you are relatively new. Perhaps your mission is not easily explained.

The road to passion might just be serving on your board of directors.

Here’s an example.

I’m a board alum of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. During my time on the board I served on the governance committee and in officer positions, including a term as the board chair.

Even now, some of my very best friends ask: what’s a Humanities Council?

If you don’t know, there are 56 independent state affiliates of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). These affiliates develop programs and award grants for public humanities projects from funds they receive from the NEH or raise locally .

Okay, now I know I’ve lost you. Public humanities?

That’s exactly the challenge the Council faces in recruiting board members. It’s hard enough trying to explain what the humanities are, never mind explaining the public humanities. Yes, if you are a college professor in a humanities* field (see definition below), you are likely to be interested in the Council. But who wants a board filled completely with scholars? Or just former grantees?

In recruiting new board members from outside of the academy or the libraries and museums and other recipients of its grants, the Council often found itself in the position of recruiting individuals who didn’t have an existing relationship with it and maybe even weren’t 100% sure of why the Council mattered.

But I can attest based on my service and in conversations with board members I recruited or who have followed their service since, that once they serve, they become passionate advocates for the Council and for the public humanities.

Why? Because the Council created those transforming experiences for its board members.

How did the Council do this? Here are a few of the ways:

Embed the mission into the board meeting

When I joined the board, the tradition was to open a meeting with a humanities dialogue or presentation. We might discuss a reading that was used in one of our programs. We might view and discuss a short film from one of our grantees. I vividly remember when two local jazz aficionados who had received a small grant from the Council presented the rough cut of their film of Providence’s famed Celebrity Club. We had a very difficult time moving onto other topics on the agenda.

Bring a really interesting mix of people on the board to spark memorable conversations.

With its mix of scholars and others, board conversations were often humanities explorations themselves. A discussion about a poem about spring included an exploration of frogs, ancient Egyptian dieties, biology, verse, and environmental science due to the eclectic mix of board members.

Meet in interesting places to learn new things.

Our annual retreat and two of our four regular meetings were held outside of the office. We might tour a grantee site to hear more about the project we had funded. We visited museums, libraries, historic sites and even a newly restored small movie theatre/cafe throughout the state.

Break bread together to create strong social bonds.

All Council meetings ended with a food and libations. This informal time gave us the opportunity to learn more about other board members. We became friends on a unique team.

Just a few weeks ago, I was invited by a current board member to a women’s “humanities luncheon” she was hosting. One of the board scholars led a lively discussion about the role of the humanities in creating a life of the mind and in our civic life. At the start of the conversation, there was the usual confusion about what were the “humanities.” But not by the end. Everyone left the room feeling invigorated with their love of the humanities.

I’m sure that there will be some potential board recruits among that crowd.

What are the humanities? From

“The term ‘humanities’ includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.”
–National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, 1965, as amended

P.S. If you haven’t discovered your state humanities council yet, you can find it at




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.