Grow Your Board

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graphic depicting a matrix of skillsets that a board of directors should have

Too often, Nominating Committee conversation starts with: “Who do we know?” rather than: “Who do we need? The conversation should focus on the experience, skills and connectivity to build a high performing board. Effective recruitment mimics the way paid positions are best filled in nonprofits – by defining the organization’s needs and identifying candidates to help meet them.

Assess Your Needs

Aa methodical approach to recruitment and onboarding in order to improve the quality and diversity of additions to your nonprofit board. The approach focuses on filling gaps rather than merely filling seats. The approach makes it more likely that your candidate accepts the invitation to join.

Clarify vision and goals. Start with a clear vision for the impact you intend your nonprofit to have on its clients, visitors, members, community. Set a series of goals for a three-year period. These building blocks of any strategic plan are key to building an effective board because you need talented voluntary leaders to help realize your nonprofit’s vision and fulfill your goals. Ask: what knowledge, abilities and connections are needed to do so?

Identify gaps. Use a simple board matrix (spreadsheet) as your planning tool. Begin with a column-long list of the expertise you need to populate your board (e.g. legal, accounting, marketing, media relations, architecture, engineering, event planning, fundraising, government relations…the list can be long!). Then fill in the names of current board members who meet the criteria. The cells left blank – no current name to match the need! – are the gaps you’ll need to fill.

A sample board matrix is available here.

Field Candidates

Good additions to your board need not be people you already know; strong board candidates will respond to an unprompted overture when they’re asked to lend their unique talents and abilities – just as many of us would respond to a call from an executive search firm with a job prospect too good to pass up.

Create profiles. A gap analysis will pinpoint deficits in your board’s composition – gaps in skills and expertise; social, political and business connections; community representation; and financial resources. Use the list of gaps to create profiles of the kinds of individuals you need which will guide the research you’ll conduct to find candidates.

Find prospects. Search for potential board members who can fill the gaps using all the resources available to the Nominating Committee. Scour your entire donor list and lists of top contributors to similar nonprofits. Consider prospects from amongst your vendors. Have conversations with employees, fans, friends and family sharing your recruitment criteria to see who they know. Query professionals familiar with your nonprofit (e.g. your accounting firm). Regular reading of the local business newspaper (e.g. Crain’s in New York) will help surface candidate names. So will conversations with colleagues at organizations that have a vested interest in your success (e.g. UJA-Federation, United Way, Catholic Charities). And…that’s just a start.

Cultivate Interest

Just like soliciting a major gift, asking someone to join your nonprofit board can require careful cultivation over an extended period of time. Be patient and plot out smart steps.

Establish a pipeline. Begin longer-term cultivation of prospective future board members in a less targeted way. Engage corporate volunteers through partnerships (e.g. banks, media companies, developers…). Set up a junior board. Populate appropriate committees with non-board members so they’ve got a way to get engaged before you ask for a more formal commitment (and to test their leadership and performance).

Ask for a date. You might invite strong candidates to an informal get-to-know-you conversation over coffee, one-on-one, with a member of the Nominating Committee. Highlight the reasons you’ve reached out. In general, candidates are more likely to respond when they understand they are filling a gap, providing knowledge, skills or connections otherwise absent.

Cultivate. Invite the prospective candidate for a tour, or to see a program in action. Have them meet the CEO and another board member over lunch. Introduce the prospective candidate to other members of the staff and board by extending a gratis invitation to a forthcoming gala or event. Share information that provides a broad overview, such as recent financials, annual report, strategic plan and marketing materials.

Make the Ask

Good boards are purpose-built to support the organization’s vision for the impact it wishes to have, which requires cycling on new board members who have the skills, the knowledge and the reach to aid the organization in achieving its goals and realizing its vision. To do so, board members must clearly understand their responsibilities, typically laid out in a board job description enumerating responsibilities so there is clarity around the role.

State expectations. Make sure that the candidate is given a copy of the board job description to review. Reinforce the contents along with your invitation to join the board. Clearly indicate performance expectations: meeting attendance, financial obligation and committee participation are three areas that should be explicitly discussed as part of the “ask.”

Invite formally. A letter of invitation signed by the board chair and the CEO makes the process of joining a board a more formal affair and allows you to attach another copy of the board job description and restate key expectations in writing.

Promise evaluation. Good boards evaluate their overall performance each year and evaluate the performance of individual board members. Sharing a copy of the evaluation tool that you use to assess individual board members’ performance each year gives the Nominating Committee cover if they choose not to recommend re-election if the individual’s participation is a disappointment.

Onboard New Members

Imagine what it feels like to show up at your first meeting as a new board member wondering: What are the issues? Who are the players? What can I say? Where should I sit? An effective onboarding process that provides orientation and training for newly elected board members can make each a productive participant from the beginning.

Review. Ask new board members to thoroughly review the board handbook, which should include a range of materials from by-laws to bios, policies to program descriptions, and a copy of the Directors & Officers Insurance policy.

Orient. Develop a standard orientation procedure. Include a tour of facilities; sit-down sessions with key program, operations, marketing and development staff; a close look at the budget and financial statements with the CFO; and an introduction to fellow board members.

Mentor. Each new board member might be paired with a veteran who can serve as a mentor. The veteran should provide a personal overview of the organization and his/her experience as a board member in advance of the new member’s first meeting. Having someone familiar to sit near at that first meeting, and periodic phone calls to review issues and answer questions, will help with acclimation.

Engage. The chair might assign a short-term project to a small group of new board members. The project 1) encourages the new members to develop camaraderie, 2) tests their capacity to perform effectively on behalf of the organization, and 3) quickly establishes a track-record of contribution that others on the board will note.