Nonprofit executives often lament their boards’ limited engagement. Recognizing that volunteer board members will prioritize professional and personal obligations first, they accept whatever investment busy board members can make. When I heard a nonprofit leader recently acknowledge a disconnect between having the right professionals on his board and expecting their involvement, I was reminded that better board engagement requires better board recruiting.
It’s not a matter of intent, as surely the seasoned business professionals he strategically recruited to his board want to perform well on behalf of the organization. Indeed, in many ways, they are. His point was one of alignment, in that he must remind them that his $7 million social service organization is not a for-profit entity, making it near impossible to deliver quality services, maintain continuity of staff and end the year with a $150K surplus. In reality, the organization strives to meet a growing demand for services with restricted funding and increasingly limited resources. Without representation from the field, nonprofit management or even nonprofit accounting, the board’s composition does not match its full range of needs, and involvement in fundraising, strategic planning and other governance functions falters.
So how to ensure board recruitment actually aligns with organizations’ needs? Seven steps – simple when they’re ongoing – come to mind:
Integrate your strategic plan.
An effective strategic plan is a roadmap that guides an organization toward the achievement of its mission. By outlining strategic priorities and the steps needed to achieve them, it informs literally everything, from operational and financial goals to staffing and board composition needs. If a health center aims to purchase its own building rather than lease, for example, the organization might benefit from a new board member with experience in real estate or facilities management to enhance its preparedness.
In the absence of a strategic plan, the board must agree at least on a shared vision. In working with a statewide advocacy organization, I noticed that the board was composed of representatives mostly from the northern and western parts of the state, where the majority of their offerings were concentrated. The organization’s greatest opportunity for growth, however, was in the densely populated eastern region. Because board members historically joined the board to represent – and protect – their counties’ interests, they did not develop a shared vision for the whole, which handicapped the organization’s ability to evolve and achieve a greater impact.
Inventory your board.
Your board is an asset, not only as a collective body but as a collection of individual talents, skills and connections. Know what your board members bring to the table by creating a matrix of their strengths. Guidestar suggests organizing board members by categories that include industry, age, ethnicity, affiliations and anticipated roles. Consider other demographic information, such as geography and gender, as well as personal attributes and characteristics, to paint a complete picture of your board.
Part of your goal is to build a governing body that includes diverse perspectives and appropriate representations of the community you serve, so determine qualities that show what assets you have. Remember, though, that a matrix is not meant to pigeonhole board members. Identify qualities that can predict what board members can do for your organization. For instance, experience in sales can be applied to fundraising, relationship-building, advocacy and more.
Revisit your bylaws
A regular review of the bylaws is best practice for every nonprofit board, for it is otherwise impossible to ensure compliance. In fact, Charity Lawyer cites operating with outdated or inconsistent governing documents as a top mistake in governance. According to Empower Success Corps, preparing for board recruitment provides a particularly opportune window for the board to revisit its governance manual. Since the bylaws typically define how the board functions and who is eligible for board membership, it is important to adjust outdated information before new board members arrive.
Consider, for example, whether your board and officer terms are aligned with your organization’s needs. Are one-year terms for officers appealing or too disruptive? Are term limits defined and enforced? To protect your organization, make sure that your board functions in compliance with your bylaws and that they’re written in a way that fosters compliance. A board of 14 realized that its bylaws specified 21 members, which was large and prohibitive, so the board amended the requirement to allow a range of 10-18 board members.
Most professionals would not accept a paid job without a clear job description and some indication of performance expectations. An unpaid job should be no different. Having identified board recruiting needs based on the strategic plan, board member inventory and bylaws review, the board should develop or update the job description for board members (as well as officers and committee chairs). The job description is a useful tool not only for clarifying expectations, but also selection criteria and expected outcomes. Prospective board members should know from the onset what’s expected in terms of meeting attendance, committee membership and annual financial contribution.
They also should understand your board’s interest in them as candidates, just as you should uncover their motivation for joining your board. It’s possible a CPA aims to augment her financial expertise by leading a strategic planning process, so don’t assume she wants to serve as board treasurer on her personal time.
Define (and execute) the recruitment process.
Notice that there are four critical steps that precede this one, yet many boards are tempted to launch here. When a board vacancy is identified, they sometimes rely upon the CEO or board chair to identify prospective candidates based on their own networking efforts or impressions of what skills/connections are needed. Sometimes, it’s a traditional “nominating committee” that develops a slate of candidates. However, best practice in modern governance partners board recruitment with board effectiveness through a governance or board development committee. As noted by the National Council of Nonprofits, serving on a nonprofit board transcends getting elected to involve continuous learning, advocating for the mission, decision-making in the best interests of the organization, risk and asset management, and planning for the future, so this pairing makes good sense.
It’s the governance or board development committee, then, that spearheads recruitment on behalf of the whole board. Through each of these seven steps, the committee taps the board for input, referrals, introductions and possibly involvement, but follows a carefully designed and timely recruitment process that defines roles for the committee, the board members and the chief executive.
As stated, board recruitment and board development are inextricably linked, so the recruiting process does not end with a vote. Since the election is, in fact, the beginning of what ideally will be a productive board tenure, it is imperative to invest in that launch. The board, through the governance or board development committee, should design and deliver a thorough board orientation. As BoardSource indicates, the board orientation is an initiation to board service that introduces the organization, along with its mission and programs; clarifies time and financial demands, fosters team-building among board members, and brings new members up to speed on organizational activities as well as decision-making processes and board practices.
Board members should also receive an up-to-date board manual with all the documents they will need to govern, including the bylaws, financial info, current strategic plan, board member contact info, recent board minutes and more. Only through effective onboarding can new board members make valuable contributions to the governance process from the very start.
Assess board (and board member) performance.
Filling a board vacancy is not a sufficient indicator of success in board recruitment. Since individual performance must be evaluated in the context of the whole board’s effectiveness, board self-assessment is an essential tool in building a nonprofit board. On an annual basis, the board should rate its performance in every aspect of governance. Similarly, board members should assess their own performance in the context of what was expected – and promised. Modern governance enables the use of technology in preparing and distributing self-assessment surveys and in archiving results, which can be used to inform future goals for board development.
Joining a nonprofit board is a privilege and a responsibility. When boards recognize these seven distinct steps in board recruitment, they enhance the governance capacity of their organizations through increased board effectiveness.