If all nonprofit boards focused on the mission, did not allow individual agendas and personalities to overwhelm the collective needs of the organization, and worked in partnership to define the organization’s future, a great deal of dysfunction would disappear from the nonprofit sector. – Executive Director’s Guide (Deborah Linnell, Zora Radosevich, and Jonathan Spack)
I heard it again from another ED today, bringing to four the number of such statements made in less than two weeks. “We need more board members but it’s just so difficult to find them.” When I ask about their current strategy for purposefully recruiting board members, executive directors typically tell me that their organizations don’t actually have a strategy. Either that, or they’re not going beyond asking the question “Who do we know?” in their board meeting. Part of the problem with that question is that if it’s everybody task, it’s nobody’s task. Board members, like fundraising revenue, aren’t likely to magically appear at your doorstep imploring you to commit them to service. You simply must develop and activate a strategy and then ask.
Whose Job is Board Recruitment?
In many cases, bylaws and/or state laws require a minimum number of directors on a board. If a board isn’t recruiting new talent to its ranks, often the recruitment function falls to the ED because it simply has to be done. This is a very slippery slope; it’s not the ED’s job – board recruit is a board function. This is often a challenging aspect of governance for boards to accept, and I hear from my ED clients and colleagues that more often than not, they’re the ones out looking for the next organizational leaders. Sorry, board chairs, but this ball is in your court – get that nomination committee together. In what other sector of business is an employee expected to go out and recruit her bosses? Your hard-working ED has enough on her plate already.
Should Board Members Replace Themselves?
Often, a board member who is in the process of terming out or stepping off of a board will be told that he must ‘replace himself’ – this is not a board recruitment strategy. First, that board member’s family, friends, and colleagues are going to see him coming a mile away. Second, you’re likely to get somebody similar; while that’s not always a bad thing, but it may not be the most prudent strategy, as we’ll cover later. Board recruitment is an ongoing process; it’s not something that is only considered when there’s a vacancy. That’s not good governance, it’s crisis management. Make it an organizational practice to think five chess moves ahead when it comes to recruiting board members.
Who Do We Need?
Having the right board members with the right skill set helps the organization achieve its strategic goals. Consequently, the first questions that nonprofit boards should consider as they start to formulate their board recruitment plan are: What are our strategic priorities? What skills or expertise do we need on our board to help us achieve those priorities? Who are we now and who do we want to be in the community in the next five years or so? A board profile worksheet (also called a skills audit or a board composition analysis) is a simple and flexible too to help you get started. Here are two great examples from Simone Joyaux Associates and Annenberg Alchemy. Use these tools to assess your current board in order to identify gaps in your board composition; you can use the findings to guide board member recruitment and ultimately enable you to create a diverse and well-rounded board of directors.
Why is it so Difficult to Find Board Members?
There are a number of barriers to obtaining board members – real and perceived.
We don’t exactly make it ‘fun and rewarding’. Rather than directly involving board members in mission-related, exciting programs that change our community and the world, we ask that they attend mind-numbingly boring meetings where they’re expected to pore over the minutia of I&E and ED reports and the like (as if they don’t get enough of that in their own jobs). What’s more, they are rarely if ever provided with a proper orientation or given a board member job description detailing their roles, responsibilities, and expectations. They’re not clear about what they’re supposed to do and aren’t given any direction to clarify their involvement. Does this sound like fun to you?
The usual suspects . . . again and again. This goes back to the question of “Who do we know?” It’s interesting that so many EDs complain about their boards, but expect to get a completely different result relying on board members to recruit their friends. People usually associate with those who are similar to themselves. Nonprofit boards tend to be homogeneous and sadly lacking the diversity reflected in their service communities. In fact, a report by The Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy finds that boards are overwhelmingly made up of non-Hispanic whites and individuals between the ages of 35 to 65. The same report sounds a strong caution against recruiting people simply because they are friends (or relatives) of current board members.
Too much, too little, too late, too confusing. We often expect too much from too few board members, provide little if any training, development and/or direction, and don’t communicate specific needs. In my own experience as a board member, I’ve either felt completely forgotten about with no communication at all for months at a time, or over-worked to the tune of 8-10 hours per week. Is it any wonder board turnover is so high?
If you’re losing 2-3 board members a year for reasons that have nothing to do with term limits, ask why. Are you over- or under-working them? Do you treat them with dignity and respect? Are you managing meetings well so that they’re interesting, productive, and dare I say . . . occasionally fun? Invest in the proverbial care and feeding of board members.
We haven’t made a compelling case for board service. Type in “Nonprofit board scandal” in Google and you’ll have an evening’s worth of reading. When was the last time you read about a board doing something awesome and amazing in the news?
It’s a thankless job . . . literally. I’ve served on boards for close to twenty years now, and I’ve never been thanked by either the board chair or the ED for my service. Unfortunately, my experience is typical. As a former ED, I made sure that thanking and acknowledging my board members was a high priority, regardless of whether I occasionally disagreed with a board member’s perspective or if I felt that some were under-performing. Board members are volunteers and their time is valuable; if you’re not thanking your board members (or your program volunteers, for that matter) on a regular basis – with sincerity – don’t be surprised if your organization cannot retain them. Everybody likes to be thanked for his/her contribution, and it’s free and easy to do so.
You CAN Recruit a Great, High-Performing Board!
Most small nonprofits are seeking either working or working/fundraising boards. It would be great to have boards comprised of well-heeled, jet-setting socialites. However, I’m going to assume that as a small nonprofit organization, you’re in the first category and that your biggest hurdle is figuring out where to find wonderful people who will have passion, humor, creativity, and time to donate to your organization’s great cause – people who will donate their ‘time, treasure, and talent’.
Fun & Creative Ways to Recruit Board Members
1. You Have Friends at the Chamber of Commerce. If your organization isn’t a member of your local Chamber, you’re missing out on some wonderful networking opportunities and events. The Chamber regularly sponsors ribbon-cutting events for local businesses, and reaches out to the area business community through emails, phone calls and ‘snail mail’. They’d be very pleased to announce your board vacancies to other Chamber members through these avenues. I serve on my local Chamber of Commerce Membership Committee – and am proud of the fact that the Chamber goes out of its way to please its members. Join your local Chamber of Commerce today.
2. Free “Matchmaker” Websites. These are excellent resources that connect people seeking board service with nonprofit organizations seeking board members. Here are some of the more effective and well-known websites:
BOARDNET USA has a national reach, although it can be ‘spotty’; the site is loaded with additional information and resources.
VOLUNTEER MATCH has a scope that is larger than that of Boardnet, but is better known as a way to match up program volunteers with nonprofits – board members are listed at a much lower rate. That said, it was encouraging to type in my small town of Monterey, CA, and I received 98 volunteer listings. I’ll definitely be using this tool in the future.
BRIDGESTAR GROUP is a nonprofit advisor and resource for mission-driven organizations and philanthropists. This site uses the Boardnet database, but also adds individuals from its (mostly corporate) members. The site also includes a lot of additional resources.
3. BOARD MEMBER CONNECT. I placed this “matchmaker” website in a separate category because it’s not a free service; it is, however, very low-cost. I used this site to connect with an online marketing whiz at Apple who was a great board member at a cost of $20.00. In the process of selecting Dave, I corresponded with no fewer than seven candidates. Prospective board members complete a profile and you can browse their interests, backgrounds, experience, etc. I can’t say enough great things about this site, so be sure to check it out!
4. Board Member Swap. Select four organizations in your community in which you currently don’t know anyone – but you’d like to (e.g., YMCA, YWCA, Boys & Girls Club of America, and the Girl Scouts of America). Ask the officers on your board to call one of the four local organizations and ask to have coffee with one of their leaders. During that meeting, suggest that your two organizations recommend “retiring” board members to each other when their terms are up, as a way of establishing organizational links and strengthening ties among communities.
5. Cultivate Relationships with Young Nonprofit Professionals. The Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) serves thousands of emerging nonprofit sector leaders in chapters across the country. These passionate, energetic leaders are always looking for new and diverse leadership experiences to add to their resumes – why not bring them closer to your organization?
6. Go United Way! United Way chapters and volunteer centers provide people with development opportunities on how to be effective board members. As if that’s not enough, they then match them with nonprofit organizations that need them. It’s fondly referred to as a Board Bank Program, and it is perhaps the best kept secret in the nonprofit sector. Here’s an example of one such program.
7. The Politics of Board Service. Is there a member of your staff, volunteer crew, or board who volunteers for political campaigns? Nothing unites (or divides) people like politics, and political campaigns are hotbeds of diversity – you’ll find more cultural, socioeconomic, and religious diversity there than in most typical community settings. You already know that these people get directly involved and unite for social and community change, so they’re great candidates for your board. Ask those involved to identify a few prospects they’ve met while serving on the campaign and follow up soon after the campaign is over (they’ll likely be too busy during the campaign itself).
8. Press Coverage that Brings You Leadership. If it’s been a while since you contacted your local newspaper reporters, radio hosts, and local public programming stations about doing a feature piece on your organization, now is a great time. In an increasingly competitive market for ‘air time’, donations, and other resources, the media can be your best advocate in helping you stand out from other local nonprofits that you’re competing with for board talent. When you score an interview, be sure to end your piece with a “call to action” – an invitation to become involved in your organization as a board leader. If you’re not sure on how to get started with media relations, see my three-part blog series entitled, Nonprofit Marketing 101: Be Your Own “Mini Media Mogul”.
9. Invite the Public to Check out the Board During a Board Meeting. Plan it during a meeting when there’s not likely to be contentious or sensitive material discussed to which non-board members are not privy.
10. Scan Community Newspapers for Retirement Announcements. If you see that someone in your community is retiring, you can send a note saying, “Congratulations on your retirement! Even though your work life may be changing, you’ll still want to remain active and involved our community – here’s how!” Invite them for coffee and if it feels like a there’s an alignment of interests, extend an invitation to sit in on a board meeting.
11. Contact Professional Organizations. Say you’re looking for a board member with fundraising skills. You can send an inquiry to the closest chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). Chances are very good that they’d be pleased to distribute your announcement in their newsletter and/or send your request via an email announcement to their members. You can do the same if you’re looking for accountants (American Accounting Association), lawyers (American Bar Association), etc.
12. Colleges/Universities. Call or visit a local college or university department that is aligned with your organization’s mission. Ask the administrator to e-mail your announcement for new board members to faculty, staff, and graduate students (if you’re looking to attract young board members). Major universities often have veterinary schools, human services divisions, community services departments, etc. – don’t rule universities out because you’re “not looking for students” – they’re a wealth of networking possibility.
13. Involve Donors. Invite your major donors to attend a coffee or lunch meeting to brainstorm with you to create a list of possible board members. Donors are usually very flattered to be asked to participate in organizational decision-making.
14. Invite Community Members to Serve on Committees. This brings much-needed vitality and outside perspective to committee service. We tend to create committees consisting of a couple of board members and a couple of staff members; if they’re doing a lot of work, that committee can easily exhaust the board as a whole. A better use of your time is to go out into the community and identify committee members who will then serve and “prove themselves” as either great or not-so-awesome board candidates. If they do that for a few months or a year, you’ll have a lock-solid expectation of what it’s like to work with that person – and their ability to lead. That’s great cultivation!
15. Social Media Platforms. Use your organization’s Facebook page and Twitter feed to make an announcement that you’re looking for awesome board members. You can reach many more potential candidates by asking permission to post your announcement on similar organizations’ or company pages. I haven’t been turned down yet and it demonstrates a spirit of cooperation and cross-pollination. For example, if you’re an animal rescue organization, you might ask your local Humane Society to Tweet and post your announcement to their friends, fans, and followers. You could also produce a 2-3 minute ‘home made’ video about why your organization is special and how community members and supporters can get involved in board service – post it to your organization website and upload it to your organizational social media channels, including Youtube.
LinkedIn is also a great resource for recruiting board members. Consider joining a few professional LinkedIn Groups and posting your announcement on their feeds. For other LinkedIn strategies to recruit board members, here’s a link to a free one hour webinar.
16. Use Public Speaking Events as Platforms. If you’re giving a presentation about your organization to community groups such as Rotary Club, Junior League, etc., make your ‘board pitch’ in the closing. For example, “If what you’ve heard today has piqued your interest and you would like to become more involved in The Boys & Girls Club, consider serving on a committee or becoming a board member. We always welcome new talent from our community.”
17. Make an Announcement at Your Events. Having a gala? That’s a perfect opportunity to invite community members and supporters to join your board team. Holding a pet adoption event? Print some announcements and highly-visible signage to get those puppy-lovers engaged with your organization. Attending a professional workshop? That’s a wonderful venue for introducing yourself, your organization, and your pitch.
18. Website. Post your board openings on your organization’s web site.
19. Involve Former Board Members. Invite former board members to coffee and ask them to suggest 1-2 candidates.
20. Recruit Existing Volunteers. Ask your volunteer force for possible candidates (better still, recruit from the existing volunteer force).
21. Public Announcement Boards. Yup, they’re still very popular – just walk into your favorite coffee shop and you’ll likely see one there. Design an attractive, eye-catching flyer announcing your board vacancies and display it prominently. Who doesn’t stop by a coffee shop? Also, consider posting announcement in businesses that are related to your organization. For example, if you’re involved in pet rescues, you may be able to post some announcement at local veterinarian offices, SPCA centers, and retail pet stores.
22. Lobby Signage. Post an announcement in your organization’s lobby.
23. Email Blasts. Send out an e-mail to your members and followers with the qualifications and personality profile you’re seeking. Enter the subject line as, “Looking for a fun and fulfilling way to serve your community?”
24. Place an Advertisement in a Weekly Publication. Run an attractive, compelling ad in the publication’s print and online version.
You’re On Your Way!
Board recruitment can seem like a real time-suck, but remember that you’re designing the future of the organization. While it can be a constant challenge for small nonprofits to find ideal board candidates willing to make the major time commitment it takes to be effective board members, it is possible to be intentional, creative and lighthearted about the process. Regardless of what strategies you use to identify and cultivate board members, ultimately you have get out of the office, meet people, and ask.
Finding board members is easier than you think. Using the strategies outlined in this post, I have never had difficulty identifying potential board members. Not all who are interested will be a good ‘fit’ for your organization, but at least you’ll have a healthy candidate pool. Now, get out there and found those soon-to-be fabulous board members who will contribute to your organization’s greatness!