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How to Recruit Board Members - Even in a Crisis

Posted: 9/28/2020

Click here to read on Chronicle of Philanthropy

by Joan Garry

During a crisis, especially one that targets the sustainability of an organization, what a nonprofit leader needs more than anything is a posse of folks who care deeply about the organization's work and want to support it.

Why? Because you can't do it alone. It just isn't possible. There is too much going on these days: the move online, cash-flow problems, canceled galas. Everything has been turned upside down.

In times like these, you need folks who are really in this with you: exploring new options and helping you to spread the word of the heroics that have led to innovation. You need a chorus of voices telling supporters that times have never been tougher and the need never greater.

And the chorus should be composed of board members, right? If your current trustees aren't there for you, consider expanding the board to find those who can amplify your voice. To do this, market board service as an opportunity, a joy, and a privilege.

Reframe Your Pitch to Prospective Board Members
I argue all the time that we recruit board members poorly, even when under the best of circumstances. Eavesdrop at a nominations committee meeting of any nonprofit board and you'll hear things like:

  • Why would she join our board? Our organization is too small for her.
  • He would never say yes. I'm sure he is too busy.
  • Being on our board is a lot of work; I can't see her saying yes.
  • He recently lost his job — he won't be able to give money.
  • I don't think she knows anything about our organization — it doesn't make sense to ask.
  • She just stepped off that other board; she would definitely want a break.

What do you hear in those statements? Enthusiasm? Uh, no. Creativity? Nope. Optimism? Definitely not. You'd swear these committee members were trying to get a group of people to volunteer to get root canals.

There may be legitimate reasons why it is difficult to recruit board members, but the one I am currently focused on is the one that is our fault.

The main reason that nonprofit board service is such a tough sell is because we do a lousy job of selling it.

Let's take a minute and consider how we ourselves often think about board service.

  • It's really hard to find anyone who would be willing to devote the time.
  • There are no people out there who are willing to raise money.
  • When I do get someone interested, I work really hard to downplay how much work it is.
  • I definitely downplay the fundraising obligation because otherwise they will say no.

We are asking people to give time they don't have to do something (fundraise) that makes them break out in a cold sweat. Our own beliefs make us do a lousy sales job. Folks who do say yes rarely understand the responsibility of board service. And I'm not talking about fundraising. I am referring to board members arriving without a clear understanding that their role is to form the legal and governing body of the organization. Trustees are responsible for ensuring that every donor dollar is managed well and invested wisely to maximize the organization's impact.

A nonprofit is like a twin-engine jet: one engine is the board and the other, the staff. You need both engines for an organization to fly. Stressing that in pitches to prospective board members would make it easier to recruit solid, involved board members.

It is time to market board service as an opportunity and a responsibility so new members join boards for the right reasons with their eyes wide open, eager to step into leadership.

Here are six ways to improve board recruitment.

Select a first-rate recruiter. If you've ever taken a kid on a college tour, you know the student tour guide can make or break the experience. More than anything, enthusiasm (or lack of it) is the deciding factor.

Are the people serving on your nominations committee your biggest cheerleaders? I bet they aren't. Great cheerleaders usually get assigned to a development committee.

Too often, those who fear fundraising most are the ones doing the nominating and hiring. They feel pressure to get people to say yes so they can fill empty seats. But when fear and pressure motivate people, they make poor ambassadors.

I understand that you may want your biggest board champion on your fundraising committee, but you can build a board filled with champions when your lead champion serves on the front line of recruitment efforts.

Market your organization as a winning team. Brian Cashman, general manager of the New York Yankees, is responsible for building a dream team. Granted, the Yankees can offer contracts with multiple zeroes, and that's a huge draw, but many baseball players also grew up dreaming of playing for the team. To inspire similar passion among your potential recruits, talk with pride about how much of a difference your nonprofit makes. Tell compelling stories, describe the group's rich history, or talk about how thrilling it is to be part of a start-up. If you have rock-star staff members, brag about them — or ask them to brag about the organization for you. Paint a picture that leaves the candidate thinking: I would be lucky to be a member of that club.

Explain how important the job is. People interested in board service tend to be high performers. They don't want just any job. They want one where they can make a difference. So, talk about the board's exciting work, which might include great strategy sessions, a leadership search, or an exciting new program. But remember to tell the truth about why boards matter; remember the twin-engine analogy above.

Emphasize how much they will learn and grow on a personal level. Someone who agrees to be considered for board service likely cares deeply about your mission, but the opportunity could teach the person a lot. For instance, let's say a nonprofit working with homeless LGBT youth is recruiting a potential trustee who has an adult gay son. Board service could help her understand why, in a seemingly more tolerant society, the young homeless LGBT population is growing exponentially. She would learn how government officials and the police work (or do not work) with this population. Her board service would be enriching and eye opening; she would see that the world has changed for LGBT people only in some ways and in some places. As a result, her family would no longer take its good fortune and privilege for granted.

Frame board service as professional development and a means to hone leadership skills. During board service, trustees can build public-speaking skills, learn to work on a committee to build consensus, supervise and motivate volunteers, and even realize that people experience joy when they give to causes they care about. Serving on a board builds one's résumé and skills.

High-performing people are often drawn to leadership roles. Leading volunteers (committee members and fellow board members) is a unique skill that requires the ability to motivate folks to get work done without a financial incentive. Serving as board chair is a tremendous opportunity to lead peers, partner with a nonprofit CEO, and most of all, lead in the community. A board chair can create a lasting legacy in the nonprofit world.

Remember that service is a gift and a privilege. Too often when interviewing prospective trustees, we neglect to mention the real payoff: the intangible gift of board service. Acts of service provide fulfillment, a sense of meaning and purpose. Done well, an interview should inspire a prospect to say yes and leave her feeling grateful for being asked. Imagine that.

You can recruit new members during tumultuous times because right now we are all looking for meaning and purpose. The year has brought tragedy, crisis, and an exponential need for nonprofit services. People are feeling powerless. Tap into this real and profound need to help, and your invitation will feel like a gift.

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