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Finding Effective Board Members: May Question of the Month Results

Last year, Newsletter readers identified board recruitment as one of their key challenges. "Great topic," we thought, and started searching for expert advice on the issue. Although we found excellent resources on other aspects of nonprofit boards, little came up on recruitment. Hence May's Question of the Month: "If someone asked you for advice on recruiting effective nonprofit board members, what would you suggest?"

As always, Newsletter readers had excellent suggestions. The most frequently offered piece of advice was (in the words of one anonymous reader), "Look for someone who is passionate about the cause. Their passion and energy will help you get others motivated." Readers offered several ideas for finding those individuals.

  1. Start with Your Volunteers
    "Look for dedicated program volunteers that other volunteers look to for leadership," advised Dennis Walsh of Forgiven Ministry.

    Susan Gregory of the Hitchcock Academy Community Center agreed: "Invite potential board members to become active in some aspect of your organization as a volunteer so you can grow together. If the individual is excited and participates, you have created a stepping stone for your newest board member. An active volunteer will become an active board member."

  2. Consider Your Donors
    "Look through your donor base," an anonymous reader wrote. "These individuals have already made a commitment to your organization. They have an interest in seeing your organization's success."

  3. Consult Your Current Board and Staff
    "Ask the most effective present Board members to nominate candidates," an anonymous reader recommended. A second anonymous participant suggested, "Ask staff for suggestions of friends, donors, or others who have a vested interest in the organization." A third maintained, "If you know someone who seems to know exactly the right person to refer to when there's some issue to solve, then recruit that person. They won't know the answers but they'll know who might."

  4. Reach Out to People Beyond Your Organization
    Business. CPA Dianne Saunders advocated, "Look for people who are involved in the business community and are network-oriented team players. They will be more aware of current trends and governance requirements, and more concerned with what the organization needs. And because they are busy people, they will appreciate good time management, budgets, etc."

    "Do not automatically discount a person's value to the board because of his/her youth," wrote Randy Turn of the Smith County Chapter of the American Red Cross. "The energy and 'can do' attitude they bring to the organization can be an invaluable asset. Today's young people are tomorrow's community leaders."

    Other Organizations.
    "Go to your local PTA," an anonymous reader suggested. "In my experience, the women who run PTAs have terrific CEO experience as well a social conscience." Vivian H. Mills of VHM Nonprofit Solutions advised consulting "past leaders, sister organizations, funders." An anonymous participant noted, "Board members who step down from boards of organizational allies may be willing to join yours."

    The General Public. Vivian Mills also recommended letting people know you're looking: "As appropriate get word out that the organization is seeking board members. Use various channels—the organization's newsletter, a news release for the media, word of mouth."

  5. Use Board or Volunteer Recruitment Sites
    Readers listed boardnetUSA, BoardSource, and VolunteerMatch as helpful sites.

Before You Start Recruiting

Several people suggested that a board do a self-analysis before recruiting new members. "The process should be driven first by the organization's vision, mission and strategic plan," wrote Sharon A. Dorn of Clear Creek Consulting, LLC. "Then, a 'gap analysis' should be conducted to determine what skills, talents and interests current board members have and what is needed to move the organization forward in its evolution." Don't forget diversity when determining which gaps need to be filled.

After You've Identified Your Candidates

Let potential board members know what will be expected of them. "Be sure to be specific about what the position will entail," Laurabelle McCaffrey, a community volunteer and retiree from the Allen County Public Library, recommended. "This way there should be no surprises on either side." Tracy Morgan Hollingworth of Morgan Hollingworth Public Affairs & Association Management urged, "Don't downplay the work that's needed to guide the organization to meet its mission."

If fundraising will be a responsibility of the position, say so. "It is MUCH harder to implement a board giving program after the person is on board as opposed to making it 'part of the job' before they start," an anonymous participant observed.

Make a job description or board handbook available to your candidate(s). Consultant Cathy C. Lee stated, "No volunteer should be asked to serve in any capacity without a 'job description' or at least a written summary of their expected time/talent/treasure investment." Peg Libby, executive director of the Kids First Center, suggested, "Schedule a lunch meeting, bring the board handbook and be completely honest."

An Ongoing Process

Meera Rao of Wynona's House recommended making board recruitment a process, "Incorporate it as an on-going Board effort, with a committee dedicated to" it. Ramon Reyes of the Grenville Baker Boys & Girls Club advised, "Be patient until you identify the right board members."

"The most important qualification for an effective NPO board member is that they have a passion for the mission of the organization they will represent. I have found that you can overlook current position, education, experience, religion, political affiliation and every other status both personal and professional. Everything an effective board member needs to know can be taught to a willing mind and heart, but ... you can not teach passion."

-- Kimberly Pillow Williams, International WAGR Syndrome Association

"Board members are usually expected to serve on committees and help with our events. We recruit volunteers for our committees and that way we and they can see if they are a fit with the organization. We then invite some of our best committee members to serve on the board and we already know they are willing to work and understand our mission."

-- Lisa Christie, Executive Director, Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter, Inc.

"Ask major donors or a recipient of one of your program that has turned into an active supporter/volunteer."

-- Anonymous participant

"1) Every year our organization holds an annual dinner to which we invite an interesting local personality who can speak to our mission, values, or issues. They sometimes become excellent candidates for our board. 2) Our children's teachers, coaches, mentors, counselors, and instructors have also been mined for our board even though we have nothing to do with youth or schools. 3) University professors in fields related to our mission have recommended graduating students (bringing fresh blood, youth, and new ideas) to our board. 4) Board members who step down from boards of organizational allies may be willing to join yours. 5) Never assume that someone is "too busy," "won't be interested," or "can't afford it." They will be flattered you asked and even if they turn you down now, they may be able to come on your board in a couple of years. 6) Ask that same person for recommendations. 7) It's never too early to start grooming someone in their late teens/twenties to grow into a great board member. Start by taking them to a board training or conference where they get to see and learn new ideas and meet interesting people."

-- Anonymous participant

Suzanne E. Coffman, June 2006
© 2006, Philanthropic Research, Inc. (GuideStar)

Suzanne Coffman is GuideStar's director of communications and editor of the Newsletter.
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