Build a Better Board

At RMA, we receive requests all the time to help nonprofits develop and strengthen their boards of directors.

Who are you today? The first thing we usually do when we meet with a board is give them a grid to analyze the balance, diversity, and inclusiveness of their existing board. This scan includes age, gender, ethnicity, industry, profession, giving potential, level of connections, and familiarity with your mission. Existing board members will often admit as an aside, “Oh, we really have too many women,” or, “We probably ought to have more local business owners,” but the reality of such weaknesses become obvious with a grid. (We would be glad to provide a sample grid–just ask.)

What kind of board should you have?
We then discuss what kind of board they want to form (working, policy, fundraising, etc.), and what their expectations and requirements are for potential board members. This is such an essential conversation because there is not a “one size fits all” nonprofit board, nor should any organization just seek the proverbial “warm bodies” to fulfill this leadership role. The function of a board–and who its ideal members would be–is directly related to the life cycle stage of the organization.

So how do you get there? Eventually, the conversation comes around to identifying and locating new board members who fit the profile that the nonprofit is looking for. While the preliminary steps are important, this week’s TIPS focus on locating new board candidates.

1. Start off by asking your key volunteers if they know any prime candidates that fit your profile. The volunteers are committed to the organization and have a basic understanding of the mission, vision, and values; they are good recruiters.

2. Ask your current board members to identify candidates from their business and social networks. Remember the grid. Don’t take the easy path and just “clone” your board–work to fill its gaps and weaknesses.

3. Solicit names from your staff. They may know people who would love to be part of your organization.

4. Scan your donor base for people who have already made donations to your organization and are committed to supporting it. It’s always good to have a couple major donors on the board, as they will be more invested in the organization as fundraisers–not just as donors.

5. Look at your vendor list (where you bank, purchase insurance, buy office supplies, etc.) and recruit from this group. The vendors–especially if they are large institutions such as banks and utility companies–might become major sponsors of your special events.

6. Find out where your stakeholders go to celebrate their religious beliefs. You can recruit people from these religious institutions.

7. Ask one of your clients or someone from your constituency to come on board. These people can illuminate the emotional and passionate side of your story because you have helped them.

8. Check out your area’s database of corporate executives that are looking for placement on nonprofit boards. Many states have a volunteer center or some organization that fulfills this function. National websites you could check out include www.boardsource.org or www.volunteermatch.org.

9. Send out a notice that says you are looking for a “few good board members.” Send it to everyone on your mailing list. Don’t forget, however, that a prospective board member’s motive for wanting to serve is something to consider. A person who seems like just a “resume-builder” should be invited to sit on a committee first, to demonstrate commitment and value for a year, before being considered for your board.

10. If you have a Young Nonprofit Professional Network (YNPN) chapter or a university nonprofit degree program in your community, contact them and have them to post a notice that you are looking for board members.

In closing, before you launch your search for new directors, have a candid conversation about prior board-service experience. If you recruit a person who has never fulfilled this role, he/she may have a long orientation period. Such people, while flattered to be asked and willing to serve, may well not understand what the legal and fiduciary responsibilities of a nonprofit board member are.  Be careful not to have too many “first-timers” on your board at any given point. For inexperienced directors, it would be even more critical than usual to make sure that your expectations (on everything from attendance to making gifts) is clear. Meanwhile, of course, if you recruit a person who is very sage at board service, or a well-known local philanthropist or celebrity, he/she may be overcommitted and unable to focus on your organization.

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