Among the many lessons in our recent, historic election is the truth about the company we keep. As reflected on social media, like-minded people tend to gravitate to those who think – and sometimes look – as they do. Though easily attributable to human nature, this pattern enables us to overlook blind spots that can prove treacherous, especially for nonprofit boards.
The board, in essence, should be a nonprofit’s not-so-secret weapon for mission achievement. This collection of individuals must identify and leverage a sufficient array of characteristics, skills, and connections to limit and expose unknowns as well as advance strategic goals. If constructed wisely, says an executive with the Georgia Center for Nonprofits, this “well-rounded, fully-functional super team” can serve as an organization’s personal consulting unit in working to fulfill its purpose. But how to collect the right individual board members?
Recruiting Board Members vs. Building a Team
First, remember that adding board members is different than building a board. Ideally, they happen in tandem, but too many boards concentrate on the former at the expense of the latter. If we borrow the concept of the board as an organization’s “personal consulting team,” it’s easy to understand how someone could be an accomplished consultant, yet not represent the values or specific expertise needed by a given consulting firm.
In building a board strategically, we must consider individuals’ qualities and talents in the context of the whole group and organizational goals. As Boardsource recognizes, a nonprofit board’s success “depends entirely on how decisions are made and by whom,” so each organization must evaluate its own needs and priorities, then build its board accordingly. Some attributes, such as passion for the mission and philanthropic spirit, are universally relevant; other qualities are “idiosyncratic to the organization,” such as demographic considerations (ethnicity, geographic representation, gender) and affiliations with other organizations in the field. Optimal board composition demonstrates not only best practice, but also that the organization aims to be perceived “as a responsible and civic-minded enterprise in the service of all people,” as noted by Boardsource.
Meet the Matrix
To view the complete picture, many organizations rely upon a board development matrix. An easy tool for charting what skills, characteristics, and contacts board members possess, it can be a very effective instrument for helping the board build a well-rounded, fully-functional super team. Yet, in some circumstances, it also can sabotage. Let’s explore how from both perspectives…
To be sure, a thoughtfully-designed matrix can be invaluable in the board recruiting process. Before inviting new members to join, a board must determine its criteria for augmenting the team. Boardsource asks, “what is the ideal mix of professional skills, resources, backgrounds and experience, demographics, community connections, and other characteristics” your board needs to navigate challenges over the next three to five years? And how will you ensure diversity that “breeds varying opinions, approaches, attitudes, and solutions?” The answers lie in your strategic plan, which offers clues about the talent and connections that will benefit the board in the near future.
Before you know what assets to add, though, you must assess what you have. By developing a matrix that includes all of your specific criteria, you will be able to chart all the qualities, talents, and connections your board members possess and identify any gaps. If you start with a sample matrix, be sure to enhance it with those traits and talents that are idiosyncratic to your organization.
As noted by Bridgespan, the Georgia Center of Nonprofits advocates completing not a single matrix, but three. By using the following three reference charts to align an organization’s goals with board members’ available skills, the board can build its governance capacity along with its culture:
- Strategic Needs Table – by placing strategic goals across the top row of this table, the board can list the skill sets needed to accomplish each in its respective column. As needed skill sets appear in multiple columns, they become priority criteria for board members.
- Current Board Inventory – in this table, the key skill sets identified above get placed across the top row and the names of current board members are listed down the left column. Check marks then indicate all the skill sets current board members possess, illustrating the board’s strengths and gaps.
- Recruit Attributes Chart – on this table, the board lists the key attributes that board candidates must bring to fit in the board’s culture. Included might be work style, foundational values, attitude, and demographics.
While there clearly are roles for the board development matrix to play in the process of clarifying board recruiting needs, there also is a caution. According to Jan Masaoka, publisher of Blue Avocado and CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits, the problem with such tools is that they focus our attention on what people are, rather than on what the organization needs board members to do. She identifies the following flaws with board matrix approaches:
- Skills Trap – though a matrix can help a board identify needed skills, such as “legal” or “finance,” such categories can be so broad that boards wind up with the wrong kind of expertise, like an employment lawyer when the actual need is about zoning. The other danger is focusing on skills at the expense of experience, knowledge, or perspective.
Instead of focusing on skills, Ms. Masaoka suggests considering necessary actions. For instance, rather than a CPA, a board might need someone who can help analyze the true costs of a specific program and that expertise might come from a broader pool.
- Demographic Trap – most boards face demographic diversity imperatives, but checking a certain box doesn’t necessarily promote board member engagement. Again, focusing on needed actions enables the board to achieve a stated goal, like speaking a foreign language, rather than target a prospective board member based on ethnicity, gender, or some other demographic criteria.
- Connections Trap – many nonprofits aim to include wealth or access to wealth on their boards and assume that credential alone will prove fruitful. Unfortunately, it’s too often an unspoken assumption and having means doesn’t necessarily make a board member a major donor to your cause. Nor does it always translate to a willingness to solicit other wealthy donors or a match gift from a corporate employer.
Again, Ms. Masaoka recommends focusing on the action needed. Instead of recruiting someone with ties to City Hall, for instance, target a board candidate who is willing and able to set up a few meetings with city council members.
Rather than relying solely on a board development matrix to inform recruiting needs, she suggests asking two simple questions: What are the three most important things for our board to accomplish this year (or over the course of the next three to five years)? And, do we have the right people on the board to make that happen?