Nonprofits from civic organizations to member associations to philanthropic foundations share a common opportunity and challenge—recruiting and retaining strong and effective boards. There is intense competition for effective and committed nonprofit board members, and organizations must be both strategic and targeted in the way in which they approach prospective candidates. While some of the best members serve on multiple not-for-profit boards, the majority of top candidates only have time and resources for one or two substantive commitments.
Not-for-profits will vary what they might look for in prospective board members, though virtually all look for the three Ts—time, talent, and treasure:
- Time to attend board meetings, serve on one or two subcommittees, attend program events and fundraisers, and provide advice in between meetings.
- Talent in areas that are critical to the organization, including but not limited to finance, operations, public affairs, and substantive knowledge of the issues central to the organization.
- Treasure in their ability to both contribute financially to the organization and introduce the organization to friends, family, and colleagues for additional support. Many organizations either specify a minimum level of giving or require the individual to designate the organization as one of their top three philanthropic priorities.
The process of recruiting and retaining resides with the Governance Committee, and many organizations have a Nominating Committee that operates under the auspices of the Governance Committee. The Governance Committee should prepare and maintain a board expectations document to share with potential board candidates.
Fundamentals of Recruiting New Members
What are some best practices for recruiting new board members? Being proactive is critical, and good boards are “always recruiting,” as my colleagues Jena Abernathy and James Gauss have written (see “Active Board Succession”). In my experience there are activities around creatively sourcing and onboarding new board members that are essential elements of bringing and keeping exceptional members on the board. A few priorities:
- Rightsize and assess. The Governance Committee should be very clear about what the optimal size of the board is and what kinds of candidates it needs. It is a good idea to create a spreadsheet that will assess the current board in a number of capacities: profession, skills, ability to both introduce and contribute, and diversity. Assuming the board has term limits, the committee should also be planning for certain members who will go off the board. This current assessment should be mapped next to the strategic and financial priorities of the organization, and the committee should outline whether new members are truly needed, and if so what it needs in prospective candidates. (The National Council of Nonprofits has an excellent resource page on board assessment.)
- Present Findings, Gather Input. The Governance Committee should take a dual approach after this assessment, presenting findings at both senior staff and board meetings to obtain suggestions from each for adding members to the board. Additionally, Governance Committee members should have individual discussions with each board member to brainstorm about candidates and solicit their help in reaching out when the time is right. The very best way to find potential board members is by using current members’ networks. Past board members should also be asked about ideas for candidates.
The senior staff should review a number of lists for potential candidates. Sometimes, the organization has a Leadership Council or Auxiliary Board, and there could be potential candidates there. Board committees with outside members are additional sources of candidates, as are current and past donors as well as key leadership contacts within the organization. One way to test out an internal candidate is to give him or her a high visibility fundraising task such as chairing an event. If he or she is successful, he/she will be more vested in the organization and ready to join the board.
- Start Sourcing, and Get Creative If Necessary. After an exhaustive internal search, there are several other options to find board members:
- Up-and-Comer Lists: Most cities and regions have a “top 40 under 40” or similar list of emerging leaders. Many of these people are mid-career but have not yet been approached for a board role, and therefore these lists are great sources. So are events that the organizations run for young professionals—there may be good candidates that are interested in learning more. Every city has major business and professional networking organizations that can be mined for board members. The organizations will range from women’s leadership groups to groups that are committed to raising the profile of diverse leaders to industry groups. Conduct an inventory of those groups and then decide which ones to contact to see if there is a process for approaching potential candidates.
- Social Media: Use LinkedIn to find potential committee members and from there identify those who might be qualified to join your board. Target your search to specific industries, skills, and geographies.
- Education Institutions: Look to business schools and college alumni networks especially. There are even organizations such as the MBA-Nonprofit Connection that seek to link grads and organizations. Colleges and universities in general have very well-connected and communicative networks and may be an excellent resource for potential board members.
- Search firms. While this involves a cost, many nonprofits see its value if it means getting the key talent they need to shore up their membership.
Bringing Them on Board
Once you have found one or several candidates, what are the next steps?
- The staff should prepare a summary of each candidate that should be shared with the governance committee. It is critical to understand the reason that they might be interested in joining the organization. You might want to get some background information about them from informal conversations with mutual contacts.
- Based on the findings, set up a meeting with the candidate, the right governance committee member, and the executive director/president of the organization. Spend a lot of time listening for the candidate’s story and tie in his/her interests with the needs of the organization.
- Go over the board expectations document with each candidate in detail.
- Don’t be discouraged if a candidate turns you down and isn’t ready. Your next steps are critical here. Cultivate that potential board member. Invite him/her to programming and events. Assign a board buddy, keep in touch with this person often. Do not give up—the individual might or might not join your board, but expressing an interest may yield more interest on his/her part, including a bigger donation or recommendations of other board members.
- Follow the Nominating Committee process. Make sure that you have the votes before the vote of the Governance Committee (assuming that the Nominating Committee is in agreement) and board. Keep in touch with that person every step of the way. There is nothing worse for a candidate to express interest and not to be voted in.
Finding new board members is one of the most important but time-consuming tasks of not-for-profits. Not only do the candidates need to exhibit the right mix of skills and talents, but they must be deemed a fit with the board and its financial and mission-related goals for the future.
Julie A. Rosen is a consultant in Witt/Kieffer’s Not-for-Profit and Healthcare practices. Based in the firm’s Boston office, Julie identifies C-suite and other senior leaders on behalf of hospitals, health systems, and leading not-for-profit organizations.