Six roadblocks to board recruiting

Here’s a little story to set the stage:

In preparing for a business networking event,  I decided to try something different from my standard “elevator” pitch.

The exchange went like this:

Chamber of Commerce member: So, tell me, what is Cause & Effect?

Me: Have you ever served on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization?

My intent was to engage this businessperson or government manager in a short conversation about their nonprofit experience as a way of leading into the consulting work I do.

But after posing my opening question — have you ever served on the board of a nonprofit organization, virtually everyone I asked said:


Not the answer I was expecting.

I thought that in this room of up-and -comers and networkers that serving on a nonprofit board would be de rigeur. Was I wrong!

How could this be? Maybe these people were so busy with work and family commitments that they just didn’t have the time for any community service?

Wrong again.

Upon further probing, many of the “no” sayers were volunteering with their church or a charity, or contributed pro bono professional services.

But not board service.

So why not?

I discovered the answer to my question when this one was tossed back to me:

“What exactly does a charity board do and why would I want to be on it?”

Wow. I had assumed that most business leaders would know what a board was and what it did.

I anticipated that my first question would lead to a discussion about all of the things that they didn’t like about being on a board, thus setting the stage for a pitch for my services.

Instead, I found myself in the role of general salesperson for nonprofit board service.

So here’s a challenge based on your own board service:

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

(I went with: Nonprofit boards make sure that their organizations transform the quality of life of their communities or the cause they serve. They also ensure that their organizations are worthy and trustworthy of community support. You be the judge.)

Thankfully I didn’t have time to get into the nitty gritty of typical board work (go to meetings, read reports, get into long discussions…) or I’m sure I would have sent them running for cover.

Why is it so hard to recruit Board members?

Shortly after that encounter, I came upon the following statistic:

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

That number comes from research released 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 analyzes feedback from the chief executive officers/executive directors of over 5,100 US nonprofits of various sizes.

(The report provides many other interesting insights on board performance. Worth reading).

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.”

Let me go out on a limb here, and answer that question based on my own anecdotal experience in the nonprofit sector.

Six common barriers to board member recruitment

  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?

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.

An earlier edition of this article first appeared in Contributions Magazine.