Keeping a nonprofit board populated with the right people is essential to the success of the organization. That’s why board recruitment requires a well-thought-out process for understanding exactly what roles you need filled and finding the right fit for them.
“You get what you work for,” says GCN Director of Consulting Jim Neal. “Without a board recruitment process, you won’t end up with an engaged, effective board.”
While leading the Assessment and Recruitment for Nonprofit Boards event, part of a series of board-focused sessions offered cost-free to GCN Nonprofit Members, Neal discussed the following steps for getting board recruitment right every time.
Step 1: Evaluate and identify
The first question to answer: What and who do you need?
Start by assessing your strategic needs. In light of your mission, vision, and goals, consider any upcoming targets, initiatives, or campaigns you’ve got planned, as well as the opportunities ahead. (For example, is there a program launch coming up? A capital campaign? A property acquisition? A board member’s retirement?)
You must also consider the “type” of board you have currently, and whether it’s time for your board to transition into a new (or additional) area. The primary board types are as follows:
- Working board
- Governing board
- Policy-making board
- Fundraising board
Keep in mind that these board types are not mutually exclusive – they can (and should) overlap, combine, and evolve over time.
With your needs identified, list out each of the skill sets required to meet those needs. Which of these skill sets does your board currently possess? Which do you need (or need more of) in a new board member?
One factor that’s vital to everyone’s strategic needs, noted Neal, is inclusion. Is your board reflective of your constituency as well as your values? Is anyone’s voice missing?
Create an assessment matrix listing out all your needs along one axis and all of your board members along the other. From there, you can see who you have and who you need.
Step 2: Build your candidate profile
One major key to a successful board placement, says Neal, is transparency and communication. That begins with a proper candidate profile – much like a job description for any other open position.
“Think of this as a matchmaking process,” Neal says. “Include both what you’re looking for and what a candidate might be looking for as well.”
Motivations for serving on a board are as varied as the people applying, but some of the more common reasons for joining a board include the opportunity to give back, grow as a leader, network, or gain additional credentials. “None of these motivations are better than any other,” notes Neal. “They’re all equally valid.”
In short, make sure your candidate profile covers:
- All board member responsibilities generally
- Your expectations around the specific skill sets or other qualities you’re seeking
- What you have to offer in terms of your mission and values
- What board service means to your organization (i.e., why it matters)
You’ll want to circulate this profile broadly, both within your networks and outside of them. Make it as easy as possible for your supporters – board members, staff, volunteers, donors, friends, family members – to act as matchmakers by giving them a copy of the board member profile to share and a simple rundown of what you need and what you offer.
Ways to reach outside of your networks include online services like LinkedIn and more localized programs like Women on Board from The Atlanta Women’s Foundation. In addition, watch GCN.org for the launch of GCN’s Board Finder, a complimentary online matchmaking program designed specifically for Georgia’s nonprofits.
Step 3: Applications and interviews
An application and interview process gives you the structure to properly screen and evaluate candidates. This process should be handled by a Nominating Committee made up of board members and, perhaps, the ED or another high-level staffer. (Keep in mind that the board must be responsible for the board recruitment process, not staff leaders.)
To create an application, consider what you want to know about a candidate in order to decide whether it makes sense to reach out for an interview. This may include standard “job opening” requirements like a resume and recommendations, as well as screening questions related to the qualities you’re looking for. You can further simplify and automate this process by using an online tool like SurveyMonkey or Google Forms.
For interviews, keep the “matchmaking” concept in mind: “It’s important to include questions about what you’re looking for and what the candidate is looking for,” says Neal. That includes asking them what they want to contribute: It may be something entirely different from what they do in their day-to-day work!
Also consider what you want to communicate in order to be as transparent as possible (and as appropriate) at this stage, such as the organization’s strategic priorities and specific needs. A few of the more standard questions you may want to include:
- Why are you passionate about our cause? What’s your connection?
- What professional or personal constraints on your time or service do you anticipate?
- What motivates you to spend your time volunteering?
- What expectations do you have related to how the board will work?
- What personal dreams or aspirations do you have that could be enhanced by service on our board?
- In which fundraising role do you see yourself being most active – ambassador, advocate, asker?
Step 4: Nominations and elections
Wherever you are in the process, you want to keep your ED and board chair in the loop – but especially when it comes time for nominations. You also want to make sure any returning board members who might be affected are informed. If you’ve done your due diligence – including fully transparent communication – then nominations should translate smoothly into a positive board vote.
Keep in mind that strong candidates who turn out not to be a good fit for the board might be able to take a different place in your organization: You can soften a “no” by offering them a role as a lead volunteer or on a non-board advisory committee. If it’s appropriate, you might want to provide feedback on what would make them a better candidate, such as more experience with a particular situation or dynamic.
You should be clear with each candidate, from the start, that not everyone who goes through the process will be offered a seat on the board. Also be sure to remind existing board members about confidentiality during this process.
Though most nonprofits operate on a yearly schedule of board assessment and recruitment, says Neal, “it’s good to have this process on a continuous ‘soft boil’ in order to move early in the cycle if needed.”
In addition, Neal reports that succession planning and proper onboarding are also key to ensuring board recruitment and member transitions go smoothly. For more on these topics, watch GCN’s schedule of events for upcoming board sessions.
GCN Nonprofit Members can also take advantage of our monthly Orientation to Nonprofit Boards session, a crash course in everything new board members should know, including legal and fiduciary responsibilities, key annual obligations, expectations around fundraising, and the latest trends and challenges facing nonprofit boards.
Marc Schultz is communications editor at GCN.