Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during February-1994, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Recruiting new board members can be a relatively easy task. The existing board figures out how many members it needs and everyone brainstorms the names of friends, people who owe them favors, lonely people, people who just broke up with lovers and will need something to fill the void, and other likely types. Two people volunteer to call this list of people and beg them to be on the board. When enough people have said yes, the search is called off and board recruitment is ended.
The good thing about this method is that it is fast. The problem with this method is that it results in a board of usually well-meaning but often not terribly effective members. This article is for those who prefer a method that is not so fast but is far more effective.
There are two kinds of staff in small organizations—the unpaid staff who are the board and volunteers, and the (low) paid staff. The first step in recruiting board members is to apply the same diligence and care in recruiting board members as you do in recruiting paid staff. To give you a sense of the contribution board members can make, just think about the fact that an organization that has 10 board members who each devote 8 hours a month to the group (a common workload) has 80 hours each month of contributed time—the equivalent of a half-time staff person. Most small nonprofits would love to have another half-time staff person but they don’t realize that the board members are providing that time. Of course, board members do different work than a staff person would do, but board member time can be used much more effectively than it usually is.
Following the analogy of seeing board member recruitment as similar to staff member recruitment, the first step is to define the job. Board members are required to have, collectively, the knowledge and skills needed to supervise the running of the organization and to carry out a high level of fundraising and fiscal monitoring. In addition, the board hires and, if needed, fires the executive director and makes sure that working conditions (including salaries and benefits as well as the physical conditions) are adequate and promote morale. Board members are chosen because they are highly committed to the cause and presumably have some experience with the issues the organization addresses. Obviously no one board member will have all the skills required of the whole board, but each one must have some of the skills that are needed.
If you haven’t previously done so, identify the basic responsibilities and commitment you need from all board members in a “Statement of Agreement.” A Statement of Agreement is a document that spells out very specifically what it means to be on your board. By-laws may have some components of the statement, but the statement is much bigger than that. (See page 17.) This is a step that the whole board should participate in developing and each member should sign a copy.
Third, identify the skills or areas of concern that are lacking on your board. To do so, the board must evaluate itself in terms of what it should be like at its full complement. If the board had everyone on it that it needed, what would it look like? The following questions will help you describe your ideal board:
- What demographics should be present (i.e. sex, race, age, disability, class, ethnicity, etc.)?
- What skills are required to answer the questions that come up most often and what kinds of people have those skills? These might include:
- FINANCIAL QUESTIONS: What is our cash flow like? Can we make it to the end of the year? Is this a good budget? (Types of people who can answer: accountants, financial managers, comptrollers, business owners, bookkeepers, people who have big families and small salaries and are not in debt.)
- PERSONNEL QUESTIONS: Are the personnel policies well written? Are they legal? Do they have everything we need? (Types of people who can answer: some lawyers, personnel directors, directors of other nonprofits, career counselors, union organizers.)
- PROGRAM QUESTIONS: Does the program direction we are taking make sense? Is the director creating and implementing appropriate objectives for the goals the board has set? (People who can answer those questions: community activists, people from similar organizations, people who have been involved with the issues for a long time.)
- How much time will it take to be on your board, and what kind of time—evenings, weekends, several two-hour meetings or a few day-long sessions?
- In what parts of your community do you need to have a spokesperson? Do you want someone with connections to people in politics, to activist organizations working on related issues, to neighborhood groups, to religious communities, to corporations or small businesses?
- Every board member must do some fundraising, but what kind of fundraising skills are you looking for: the ability to identify major donor prospects, ask for money in person, seek corporate or in-kind gifts, speak to service clubs— or is willingness to do any type of fundraising enough of an improvement over your current board that you won’t be fussy?
Once you have identified the types of people you need, you are ready to begin looking. Ask yourself, Who would know these people? Where would these people work? Where else would they volunteer? What might they read? What events might they attend?
Now is the time to form a nominating committee. The nominating committee takes direction from the whole board in finding candidates. It can be a standing committee, but it can also function well as a short-term, ad hoc committee. The nominating committee has two functions—to recruit board members, and to orient, train and supervise those ultimately joining the board. If you wish, you can divide these functions into the work of two committees: a nominating committee, which is really a recruitment and screening committee, and an orientation committee. This is advantageous because the process of finding and screening people can be so laborious that the nominating committee is too worn out to orient new members or help them fit into the group.
The nominating committee needs to be made up of as wide a variety of people as are on your board to provide the widest possible access to networks. People on the nominating committee need to be friendly and not easily discouraged. They need to be insightful and willing to make tough decisions. Some organizations separate the function of recruiting possible candidates from the function of interviewing those candidates and deciding which ones to recommend to the whole board. This is perfectly acceptable. It also allows for the fact that people with wide networks of friends and colleagues may not be the best people to interview the candidates they have surfaced.
The candidates need to be interviewed and need to be told ahead of time that being nominated for the board is not the same as being chosen for the board. You need to reserve the possibility of rejecting someone who is not going to work out. If you are very clear about what a board member’s responsibility is, you should not have to reject very many people. Rather, people will eliminate themselves. They will realize that they cannot commit the amount of time you want, or that they really are not willing to do any kind of fundraising or that they don’t agree with your politics. Resist completely the temptation to bring someone on who is unsatisfactory in some way. Hold out for a better person. It is better to have an empty slot on the board than a person who takes up time and space in ways that are not helpful. Firing board members is much more difficult than screening them out ahead of time.
The interview is informal and friendly. The purpose is to determine if the candidate really wants to be on the board and if his or her presence on the board would be helpful. It is a two-way interview, in which the candidate also determines if your board is one she or he feels good about. Prepare a few questions for the candidate ahead of time. The following questions are common and useful:
- Have you had a chance to read the statement of agreement? Let’s go through it point by point. (If the candidate seems familiar with it, make sure there are no questions and make clear that there are no exceptions.)
- Have you served on boards before? What did you most like about being on a board? What were the biggest problems you faced as a board member?
- What kinds of fundraising do you most want to be involved in? The candidate may not want to be involved in fundraising at all, so you can modify the question to “what kinds of fundraising are you willing to do?” (The candidate may have no experience in fundraising. This is fine, if he or she is willing to learn.)
- From what you know about our group, what part of our work excites you most? Why do you want to be on our board?
If appropriate or useful, name an area of controversy the group has had or a hard decision it has had to make and get some sense of how this person would have approached the situation. If you can anticipate areas of controversy, make sure you know the candidate’s view on those issues.
In conducting these interviews, remember that it is less important for candidates to have the “right answer” than for them to have the right attitude. You are looking for open-minded people who like working in groups and have patience and respect for group processes. You are looking for people interested in learning more about your issue and in being useful. People who want to be important and who have very set ideas or who express irritation with process are going to be trouble on the board. People who emphasize several times how busy they are may not be willing to give the time you need. People who ask a lot of detailed questions about getting reimbursed or getting their way paid to conferences or getting their name on the letterhead may be more ambitious for themselves than for the group. Trust your instincts. If someone feels wrong, they probably are.
Here are two true case studies that illustrate how the recruitment process can work.
An organization working with tenants in an inner-city neighborhood needs three board members. The group helps set up tenant associations in apartment buildings that are usually owned by slumlords—individuals and institutions, including a university and the city itself. The tenants learn what conditions are illegal and what their courses of action are: petitioning the city, demonstrating, suing, rent strikes, mediation, etc. Many of the tenants are immigrants; some are undocumented. Many are elderly and or disabled.
The group has a 13-member board. Currently the board has five tenants, three former tenants, a doctor who works one day a week at a clinic in the neighborhood and a schoolteacher who read about the group and offered to volunteer. There are five men and five women; seven of the members are people of color, including all five of the tenants, two of the former tenants and the doctor. They decide that demographically they are doing OK. Sex, race and class will not be factors in recruiting the next three board members.
However, there is no one on the board over the age of 45 and there are no people with disabilities. In looking at skills, they need someone who can help with the budgeting and cash flow process. They also need fundraising help. The board has done a lot of grassroots fundraising such as events, raffles, and door-to-door canvassing, but has never tried direct mail or person-to-person solicitation. They also believe that they could raise more money from churches if they had a minister on their board. Finally they would like to recruit someone with graphic design experience who could help put out a newsletter, and they need a writer who could help with mail appeals and grant applications.
To find all these things in three people is not easy, but this group managed to get most of what they needed. Four board members formed a nominating committee. They included one tenant, one former tenant, the doctor and the school teacher. The tenant was in charge of visiting churches and synagogues to recruit ministers to be board candidates. She was able to find a minister who had just been hired by a small Methodist church and was interested in getting involved in the community. This person also happened to have experience using graphic design computer programs and her church owned a computer she was happy to let the group use. She immediately offered to help publish the newsletter.
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The former tenant works in a fast-food restaurant as a janitor. He has become friendly with the manager of the restaurant and asked him to be on the board. The manager did not have time, but he announced the board opening at a class in financial management that he was taking and a manager of another restaurant who grew up in the neighborhood the group serves volunteered to be nominated.
The schoolteacher asked the president of the PTA for names of people who would be good fundraisers. The president gave her four names of parents. The schoolteacher and the doctor contacted these four people. None of them felt they had the time, but each gave another suggestion. Two of those people suggested agreed to be nominated.
These nominations were brought to the board and they decided to bring on all four people since they were all well qualified.
At first glance, it looks like this group had a very easy time of it, but what is evident is that they used resources they had and were willing to reach out and ask others for help. No one who came on the board was a friend of anyone currently serving, and all were brought on for specific skills that they possess and that they were told were needed. The nominating committee members also used their own networks to reach out to people they didn’t know, and they thought very specifically about what kinds of people they needed. Their desire to find board members who are seniors and/or people with disabilities was not met, and will have to be kept in mind for the next round of recruitment.
The second group is a women’s foundation serving five counties in a densely populated area. The foundation raises money and gives it to small organizations serving women and girls. They give away about $300,000 every year to about 40 organizations. They have a 21-member board with five people rotating off. Their normal selection process is to ask each board member to replace herself, but in the past this has resulted in many members who did not understand their responsibilities, creating a mediocre board.
An analysis with the whole board revealed that the board has gone through phases when all the members were white; at most, it has had three people of color on it. Like the tenant group, they have a narrow age range, with the youngest person in her thirties and the oldest in her late forties. The board had a wide variety of skills represented, with many of the members being self-employed as therapists, consultants, architects, gardeners and interior designers. They identified that they want to raise more money from corporations and since many of their grantees receive government grants, they think that understanding the government sector will be helpful. They decided, therefore, that they would attempt to fill all five places with women of color and would seek these women in the corporate and public sectors.
Four women form a nominating committee. One takes on calling the personnel director for every corporation in the community that has a reputation for being philanthropic or for having a strong affirmative action program. She explains the purpose of the group and its board goals and asks that the personnel director forward names of qualified candidates or suggest how she might approach employees of the corporation. Some directors balk at the requirement that the person be a woman and several have no women of color in their corporations to nominate. Other directors put an announcement in their internal newsletter. Some speak with employees themselves to ascertain their interest. By persevering, this committee member is able to get ten recommendations.
Two people from the nominating committee seek women in the public sector. They make an appointment to see the deputy mayor but wind up talking to his assistant. This person is not at all helpful. Undeterred, they contact members of the city council from their individual neighborhoods. Here they meet with more luck and are given three recommendations.
The nominating committee calls all 13 people they have been referred to; four are interested in serving once they learn what the job involves. They are interviewed and one drops out when she learns the group funds projects in the lesbian community. The other three are well qualified and believe in the purpose of the foundation.
The group still has two spaces left to fill. The nominating committee meets and brainstorms where else they could find the people they need. They decide to broaden the parameters of their search to include people who work for organizations that seek government funding and people who write about current affairs. Now they pursue people in nonprofit housing development and journalists. One board member’s partner works for a corporation developing an apartment complex of affordable and government-subsidized housing units. He is able to suggest a number of people who then suggest others. This process takes about two months and results in three excellent nominees. As with the first group of nominations, the full board decides to take them all. All are women and all are people of color. Only two of the new board members know anyone on the current board.
Sometimes organizations fear that if they put this kind of recruitment process in place, they will not be able to attract any board members. A group that cannot attract any board members is not a group—it is a hobby of a few people and needs to rethink its mission. A group that has to go through four or five people to find one person who is a good board member, and does this for most of its board slots, will have a good board.
One of the hardest tasks organizations face is getting a common agreement among board members as to just what their responsibilities are. This difficulty is particularly evident in the area of fundraising. There are many management and organizational development techniques to help with this and related board problems. Their success depends on the group and on the technique.
One technique many groups have used successfully is to develop a statement of agreement for board members. This statement serves as a job description and clarifies board responsibilities and authority. For boards that are already committed and motivated, such a statement helps channel their motivation and delineates agreements that may never have been verbalized. For other boards, including new boards, a statement of agreement will get everyone on the same page and help board members clarify whether they are in the right place.
An example of such an agreement follows. Agreements like these should be developed by boards themselves and not imposed by staff members or outside consultants. Different boards will have different agreements, although the one suggested here is generic enough to be adapted to most board situations.
Once a board has developed an agreement, this document can be used for internal evaluation and in recruiting new board members. (Current members can read it at regular intervals as a reminder of their responsibilities.) Going through the agreement point by point with each prospective board member can help to ensure that no one comes onto the board under any illusions.
An agreement like this can also improve relations between board and staff. Staff know what board limits are and will not make demands that exceed those limits.
This agreement is not legally binding, and a note should be included to that effect. The agreement is morally binding. It is an expression of good faith, and it provides common ground from which board members can operate.
As a Board member of ________________ , I understand that my duties and responsibilities include the following:
- I am morally responsible for the health and well being of this organization. As a member of the board, I have pledged myself to help realize the mission, which is: _____________________ .
- I am legally responsible, along with the other board members, for this organization. I am responsible to know and approve all policies and programs, and to oversee the implementation of policies and programs. I know that if I fail in my tasks, and if the organization becomes the subject of a suit from a private person, or from the Federal or state government, I may be held personally liable for the debts incurred.
- I am fiscally responsible, with the other board members, for this organization. It is my duty to know what our budget is, and to be active in planning that budget, and planning the fundraising to meet that budget.
- I will give what is for me a significant donation. I may give this as a one-time donation each year, or I may pledge to give a certain amount several times during the year.
- I will actively engage in fundraising for this organization, in whatever ways are best suited for me. These may include individual solicitation, doing special events, writing mail appeals and the like. There is no set amount of money that I must raise because I am making a good faith agreement to do my best and bring in as much money as I can.
- I will attend ___ board meetings every year, and be available for phone consultation. I understand that commitment to this board will involve a good deal of time, and will probably not involve less than ___ hours per month.
- I understand that no quotas have been set, that no rigid standards of measurement and achievement have been formed. Every board member is making a statement of faith about every other board member. We are trusting each other to carry out the above agreements to the best of our ability, each in our own way, with knowledge, approval and support of all. I know that if I fail to act in good faith, I must resign, or someone from the board may ask me to resign.
In its turn, (name of group) is responsible to me in a number of ways:
- I will be sent, without request, quarterly financial reports that allow me to meet the prudent person section of the law.
- I can call on the paid staff to discuss program and policy, goals and objectives.
- Board members and staff will respond in a straightforward and thorough fashion to any questions I have that I feel are necessary to carry out my fiscal, legal or moral responsibilities to this organization.