Board leadership can break or make a nonprofit. Simply put, knowing how to select the best board members for your nonprofit is one of the most critical decisions an organization makes.
As a nonprofit organization, you have a duty to seek and select qualified community representatives to serve on a governing board. The board fulfills three critical functions for the organization: development, finances, and governance.
How should an organization get started with such an important task? Before we dive into the right way to select the best board members, it is essential to address some of the most common mistakes nonprofit boards make in the onboarding process.
Common Mistake #1: First to fill an empty seat strategy
Unfortunately, for many nonprofits, filling board seats is an afterthought instead of the intentional process it should be.
As the end of a board term approaches, current members look around the room and panic when they realize how many people are rotating off the board. There is a newfound sense of urgency to FILL THE EMPTY seats. The determining factor on who gets nominated becomes, “Who do we know now that might be willing to serve?”
Common Mistake #2: Passion for the mission trumps board skills and experience
Board members forget that “nonprofits” are businesses. That is right. Public charities are businesses that happen to qualify for tax-exempt status. Just like any other business, there are programs/services to deliver, budgets to meet, and oversite to complete.
When a board gets tunnel vision and only focuses on the mission, it is easy to neglect critical job duties related to development, finance, and governance.
Passion for the organization and the mission should undoubtedly be a criterion for incoming board members but should not be the only skill or attribute a prospective board member can bring to the organization.
Common Mistake #3: VIP’s make the cut whether they are qualified and committed or not
It is tempting to focus only on “VIPs” from your community to fill your board seats. Many nonprofits justify allowing VIPs to bypass traditional screening processes by claiming, “EVERYONE knows this person!” It is equally as common for boards to not hold VIPs to the same engagement expectations as the other board members. The VIP missed more than 40% of regular meetings? No problem…because their name alone on the board roster brings interest and credibility to the organization. While a VIP may in fact be qualified, selecting them only for their VIP status is not how you select the best board members.
Common Mistake #4: Connections are more important than presence
Think of all the connections this person can bring to the organization as a board member! Have you ever heard that one? Are you still waiting for the line of new donors to start throwing resources at your organization? All too often, nonprofit boards assume that because a community member has an extensive network of influence, they will use those connections to the benefit of the organization. However, many organizations find themselves with new, well-connected board members who are either unable or unwilling to leverage those relationships. For local government employees, elected officials, justice system representatives, it could be illegal for them to “request” support from many in their circle of influence because it could be perceived as “quid pro quo.” Professionals such as financial advisors, business owners, and many others might be bound by company policies or ethics that prohibit them from approaching clients or others in their work circle for contributions.
So, who or what should we be looking for as we build an engaged and effective board?
While there are certainly best practices for selecting, onboarding, and engaging members of your nonprofit’s governing body, one size does not fit all. When it comes to knowing how to select the best board members, every nonprofit has unique needs, dynamics, and goals. Rather than seeking “the deep pockets, token attorney, de facto CPA for the treasurer position, or the marketing guru,” it is imperative that the board building process become more mission-focused and less “title focused.”
3 Questions to Consider When Selecting New Board Members
1. What does the organization NEED?
Clarify the organizational needs that you need leaders to resolve.
For example, a nonprofit that serves veterans might have established a five-year strategic plan that includes the development of a community home for veterans. Perhaps the goal is to provide transitional housing, physical and mental health services, and job readiness skills.
When evaluating the organization’s needs, it is essential to consider what needs your board will most actively seek to fill. Do you need board members to leverage dollars, community resources, skills, or knowledge? Perhaps your organization is focused on establishing robust financial systems and operating policies to ensure the organization’s long-term success and sustainability.
2. Who has the skills and expertise to RESOLVE the need?
Once the board has identified the primary needs that the leadership will help address, it is time to identify individuals who have the desired skill set and connections.
The veteran-focused mission mentioned above might ask: “Who in our community can help us successfully plan, develop, and complete our proposed home for veterans?”
The organization focused on building a successful and sustainable operating might lean towards prospects who have demonstrated their ability to grow a thriving business.
Keep in mind that this question and the answer should be framed through the lens of leadership, not just economic resources.
Also, many organizations have multiple needs that leadership could and should be addressing. In those cases, it will be essential to identify at least your top three needs and ask, “Who in our community can help us resolve one or more of these needs?”
3. Who is wanting, willing, and ABLE to serve?
After your team has identified the best board prospects, the real work begins! It is time to start an intentional recruitment process to determine who is wanting, willing and able to serve on your board.
A board representative should reach out to prospects to “explore potential engagement opportunities.” (Note: It might be helpful to refrain from informing board prospects that you are considering them as a board member during the initial invitation.)
As you begin to cultivate, potential new leaders consider a variety of conversation starters to determine their “want.”
- Why are they passionate about your mission?
- Are they already supporting the organization as either a volunteer, donor, community partner?
- If they have never engaged with the organization, what is inspiring them to consider it now?
If a board prospect establishes their “want,” it is time to assess their “willingness” to serve. Keep in mind that some candidates might be willing to help in lots of capacities but becoming a board member might not be one of those!
It is helpful to share with board prospects that you appreciate the passion, skills, and support they offer the organization, and you would like to explore the ways they might be willing to serve in new or expanded forms. You might explore their recent experiences or willingness to engage in specific manners, such as:
- General volunteer programs, client support, administrative, etc.
- Community outreach- events, ambassador, networking
- Resource development- fundraising, partnership
- Leadership- on a committee, action team, task force, or governing board of directors
Consider asking the candidate to share what skill sets they bring and how they would like to/or be willing to use their skills to support the mission.
If a board prospect expresses willingness to serve at the board level, the conversation should then shift to availability and expectations to determine if the candidate is genuinely “able” to serve.
At this point in the conversation, a detailed “onboarding” packet and process comes in handy! Critical conversation points should include:
- Job description for board members – The job description should outline the board’s legal and ethical responsibilities.
- Expectations for board member engagement – Key points should include attendance requirements for regularly scheduled board meetings, specific participation requirements in the areas of development, finances, and governance duties.
- Organization Overview and Goals – Include a brief overview of the organization’s past, present, and future.
At the end of the day, if a community member has confirmed that they are wanting, willing, and able to step into a board leadership role, the ball is back in the nominating committee’s court. Due diligence is a must to ensure the candidate is truly the best fit when trying to select the best board member or members.
Selecting ideal board members is just the first part of this vital leadership equation. The next question becomes, “How do we ensure that all our board members are active, efficient, and productive?
Organizations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82% and productivity by over 70% (Guidestar 2019).
As Always, Keep Growing for Good!