Is it better to have several vacant board seats than to have those same seats filled by ineffective board members? Is it better to risk giving a “yea” vote to a board candidate that could generate divisiveness among the board than to leave the seat vacant? There are no easy answers to either question. Yet, it’s not productive to have vacant board seats either. To have the best of both worlds, board members need to think about board member recruitment in two ways—it’s a plan and a process.
There are a lot of good reasons to keep board member recruitment alive and active. As with any other position to fill, boards should seek out the best talent to continually improve the health and sustainability of the organization.
It’s often said that the first duty of a board member is to identify a replacement. It’s not enough for current members to choose a successor.
Seasoned board members should mentor newer board members on how to appropriately cultivate interest in the board as a means for identifying potential board candidates. Part of the mentoring process should involve training in how to vet the best candidates and weed out ones that just won’t work out.
Just as existing board members cultivate newer board members, all board members can cultivate interest in the organization by inviting their connections to volunteer or join committees. Getting potential candidates invested in the organization often draws out some of the best future board candidates.
Boards make a plan to create a highly skilled board. Continual recruitment is the process that brings that plan to fruition.
The Process is Challenging
New research points to strong challenges in filling board seats with qualified candidates. A 2012 study showed that 58% of nonprofit leaders found it difficult to recruit new members. A new study, Leading with Intent 2015, shows that only 73% of chief executives state that they have the right board members to effectively govern their organizations.
The challenge to forming a well-rounded, highly skilled board is in recruiting candidates with skill sets and perspectives that closely match the organization’s goals and strategies to advance the mission of the organization now, and in the future.
Nominating Committees or Governance Committees?
The complexities and liabilities that today’s boards continually face are inciting boards to consider disbanding nominating committees in favor of governance committees. Today’s boards are realizing that recruiting board members is directly correlated with the governance committee’s responsibilities to form effective governance practices, so it makes sense that one committee perform recruiting and governing roles.
The nominating or governance committee should regularly remind board members that every board member has a responsibility for cultivating their connections’ interest in the board. They should also plan for how to bring potential candidates to the forefront of the nominating committee for consideration.
Strategic Plan for Board Member Recruitment
It’s helpful for boards to use tools in making their plan for active board recruitment. The annual strategic planning meeting is a periodic tool that should include a section about evaluating the current board and planning for the future board. Part of this process is identifying gaps in the current board with regard to leadership, skills, and diversity. Using tools like a board matrix or board self-evaluation questionnaire can move the process along. Questions should include identifying board talent and knowledge in the areas of finance, industry knowledge, spheres of influence, donors, and diversity.
During the annual strategic plan, board members will review the prior year’s goals regarding board recruitment as a means for actively monitoring and developing an effective board. Part of this process should be forming an outline and timeframe for the nominating or governance committee to complete its work in recruiting new board members. This should include reviewing issues such as current vacant seats, current board member expiring term dates, and any successive term limits as stated in the bylaws. Setting goals for the governance committee may include timeframes for developing or revising current board member candidate packets or orientation packets.
The organization’s strategic plan focuses on current needs and trends, as well making a plan for strategic growth. Part of the strategy should include forecasting the organization’s future needs for candidates with specific board expertise. That planning needs to dovetail into the succession planning as it relates to term expiration dates of the current board.
Plans Change and Processes Evolve
It’s impractical to think that anyone could devise the perfect process for board recruitment. It will never be perfect. If it were possible to form the “perfect board,” the complexity and fast pace of today’s business world would certainly make it an “imperfect board” in short order. Still, there is too much at stake to give the task of board recruitment a back seat in any organization, whether it’s a for-profit business or a nonprofit entity for a worthy cause. The board member recruitment process should not be tabled even when other business is pressing.
The business world is rapidly changing. Strategic plans may look very different from year to year. As organizational plans change, the needs of the board change with it. While there’s no plan or process that ideally helps every board, there should always be an identifiable plan with a corresponding goal.
Continually planning for board member succession as an active and evolving process for all board members yields the most successful results.