Finding effective board members is not for the faint of heart. It is hard work. Most boards have made it harder by having done it so poorly in the past that there are few left on the board unscathed and willing to try again — or anew.
So sad, because once you master the science of finding the right people, the rest is fun, assuming, of course, that you like meeting people and sharing your passion for the organization on whose behalf you seek board members.
Let’s break the science down into small steps that, if followed as the footprints on the floor used by dance instructors, will ensure your goal of having board members who understand both the organization and the job of being a board member for that organization before they even say “yes.” Mix in some art along the way and you will build a strong board that both understands its job and is willing (dare I say, “eager”) to do it.
This 12-step process should be led by the Governance Committee which will pull in everyone else, including the executive director, to assist in the implementation of the process.
- Write a board member job description. There are plenty of samples on the Web and you can always ask other organizations to share their board member job descriptions. Do understand that there is a difference in both form and function between a job description and a list of responsibilities. For example, I am well into my third decade working in a profession — academia — that has no job description, but does have an implied set of responsibilities. I am also well into my second decade of a job — executive director — where there is a very clear and explicit job description, with very clear and specific tasks and responsibilities stated within. The former position comes with tremendous independence and freedom (and not just academic freedom) and very little accountability to anyone other than myself. The latter comes with complete accountability to others. It isn’t happenstance that the former has just a list of responsibilities and the other a job description. Board members are absolutely accountable — to the public, to donors and to the mission.
- Create the ideal Board profile. Here’s where a little art is needed as board members must forget what is currently on the board and instead think about what is ideally needed on the board, while thinking beyond the mission. There is no value in packing a board with mission expertise that replicates what is on staff.
- Now see what you’ve got. This is where the actual — who and what is sitting around the board table now — meets the ideal — what we said we wanted and needed going forward.
- Identify the specific gaps and then prioritize them. Now you know what you are looking for — an ABC or an EFG.
- Target recruitment sources. Your smart phone is not a recruitment source! Those resources are the places where an A or a B or a C are likely to be during working hours, after hours, weekends, nights, etc. And this requires a little art, as you have to think creatively as to where folks can be found. Yes, places of work; so, approach the human resources department of a major corporation. Contact local chapters of professional associations or the formal/informal association of religious leaders in a community or a local college or university. Today, everyone wants and needs more than just diversity of skills; they want demographic diversity, as well. There is an increasing segregation of professional associations: National Society of Hispanic MBAs; National Association of Black Accountants; Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (love the name —Out in STEM); Association of Black Psychologists, Association for Women in Communications; Chambers of Commerce come without adjectives and with, including the Asian American Chamber, the Hispanic Chamber, the African American Chamber, National Lesbian and Gay Law Association. This list could go on and on. Most of these organizations have local chapters all around the country. Finding all of these incredibly rich sources of board members is simple science but also where some of that hard work comes in.
- Assign board members to reach out to each of the potential recruitment sources to explain your needs and see how they might help.
- Get your ducks in order: what information and materials will you share and when? (Do not make the mistake of sharing too little; the better informed a candidate is when s/he accepts an offer to join a board the more likely s/he will be an active board member.) What will the recruitment process look like? Who and how many will meet with a candidate first and will it be over the phone or face to face? What will happen next and with whom: a visit to the office; a site visit to see the mission in action; another interview? (And, yes, there should be more than one interview and a chance to see the mission in action.) What do you need and want to learn about the candidates, and where and how along the recruitment process will this happen? The more you treat the process, as you would a staff hire, the more successful you will be in bringing the right people on. Don’t forget the reference checks! Or, if just the mere mention of this makes you queasy, institute a requirement that everyone must serve six to 12 months on a committee before being eligible to be nominated to the board. This reduces reliance on the art of selecting the best people.
- Lots of hard work: implement the process you’ve built. Lots of art, too, in divining who will be a good board member and who won’t.
- Nominate viable candidates who are still interested in joining the board and hold the election.
- Notify candidates of their election and share with them the calendar of dates, times and agenda for the different components of the orientation program; assign a mentor to each new board member.
- Mark on the calendar the date for the mid-year “review” with each new board members.
- Now, breathe, and start the process again!
Laura Otten is Executive Director at The Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University. She is also a faculty member of the Dodge Technical Assistance Initiative. Find out more about our nonprofit capacity building workshops here.