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Check-Up Clinic: Board Enlistment

Posted: 6/24/2020

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The Board Dilemma: How Do You Recruit the Members You Need?

Hint: You don't just nominate the people you know.

by Dennis Miller

Every nonprofit organization needs to recruit new members to serve on their board. When properly identified, recruited and onboarded, incoming board members will bring new ideas and a fresh perspective to the challenges and opportunities the organization needs to address. A board that commits to a thoughtful board recruiting process will build and sustain a board that is noted for its vitality, and the organization they serve will achieve greater impact in the community.

But what exactly constitutes the most effective way to identify the right potential board members?

Most boards identify and recruit potential new members by asking people they know if they would like to serve on their organization's board. Many excellent board leaders are recruited this way. However, as a board-building strategy, it is limited. First, by staying within the confines of your board's immediate social and business circles, you risk missing out on terrific leaders in the wider community. Second, recruiting board members without reflecting on the qualities and characteristics that are most needed by your organization, your board will struggle to be effective.

When I am advising a board on how to transition from nominating only people you know to identifying the leaders you need, I recommend the following six steps:

Step 1: Develop an ideal board matrix to describe the personal characteristics and attributes of the "ideal board" for your organization. These personal characteristics may include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • Inspirational leadership
  • Access to influence and wealth
  • Recognized brand identity
  • Racial and gender diversity
  • Change agent
  • Innovative/strategic thinking
  • Decision-making ability
  • Experience in fostering collaboration
  • Technological expertise
  • Passion for your organization's mission

Remember that personal characteristics or attributes are not skills — like certified public accountant, doctor, lawyer, professor, social worker, etc. Skills are important to bring to a board, but consideration of them comes later in the process.

Step 2: Develop a current board matrix mapping the personal characteristics and attributes of the current board.

Step 3: Compare the ideal board matrix created in step one and the current board matrix created in step two, and look for the gaps. What key characteristics or attributes are lacking in your current board? Which ones are priorities for the organization?

Step 4: Based on your identification of the most desired and missing personal characteristics and attributes, engage your current board and stakeholders in identifying individuals who possess such characteristics or attributes. At this stage, you are attempting to identify individuals; you are not yet making any formal nominations.

During this stage, you should be contacting key business, community and civic leaders inquiring with them who they think might be a good board member who meets your competency priorities. Reach beyond your "inner circle" of contacts.

For example, if being a strategic thinker was a missing competency on your board, you can begin by asking the leaders you know, "Who do you consider to be a good strategic thinker in our community?" Get others involved in your work to identify people with certain competencies to join your board.

One good resource for identifying potential new board members can be the local, regional or statewide business associations and chambers of commerce that you or your fellow board members may belong to. Contact the CEOs of these organizations. Ask for their opinions, and ask them to suggest a few possible candidates.

Step 5: After you rank the potential candidates according to your specific characteristic needs — such as diversity, change agent, etc. — then, and only then, begin to rank them according to your need for specific skills.

Going back to the need for a strategic thinker for your board, consider how you might handle finding two excellent candidates who possess that competency. One is a CPA and the other is a business executive. At that point, you can consider which skill might be more beneficial to the board.

Recruiting individuals who have specific skills will bring important resources to your board. But identifying — and then addressing — key gaps in the personal characteristics in the composition of your board will raise it to a higher level of performance.

Step 6: Invite highly ranked candidates for an interview [CapDev NOTE: use a term such as "initial meeting," rather than "interview"] with select board members to discuss their potential interest in serving on the board.

Nominating individuals who are known to your current board members is one appropriate strategy for board-building, but it should not be your only strategy. The ideal board consists of individuals who are recruited based on agreed-upon criteria that first considers personal characteristics or attributes, and then considers professional skills.

Once you begin to recruit board members based on ideal characteristics first and skills second, you will be on your way to building a high-performing nonprofit board that is ready and able to have a profound impact in the community. The ultimate beneficiaries will be those you serve.

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