Nonprofits leaders have high expectations for our board members because of their impact on an organization’s effectiveness, image and outcomes. Board members should understand and be committed to the organization…but not micromanage. Engaged board members should have lively, thought-provoking dialogue, but not stall productivity or create a toxic environment with extended, frequent debate. Staff expects board members to see the big picture and the future – and cheerfully work the check-in table at the next event. These demands that sometimes seem like two different ends of a spectrum require an effective system for identifying potential board members.
Assess the current board
Board selection charts help make sure boards are demographically diverse, but they also should address market diversity. For a membership organization, the board reflect a variety of member types. For example, an engineering membership organization needs representatives from manufacturing, services, consulting and academia, not just manufacturing. A charitable organization should cover the spectrum of its specific community.
Skill diversity will add breadth and depth to a board. Typical skill sets identified for boards are legal, accounting and marketing. Less obvious but just as important are skills in public policy, process management, event planning and fundraising. If an organization is doing something big and new, like designing a new website or finding a new location; the board roster would benefit by having people with special training in these areas.
An organization’s culture defines requirements and expectations beyond what is written in the bylaws. Some organizations value years of service to the organization. Yet others want fresh ideas and look outside the “regulars” for board members. Some organizations find they need community leaders whose involvement will strengthen the organization’s credibility. For example, an organization that decides to engage in public policy should look for people with relationships with elected officials.
Requiring financial commitment should be defined. Many believe that if the organization’s own board members do not financially support it, they are not in position to ask others to do so. For member organizations with annual dues, additional financial support beyond basic dues is often a board requirement.
Research on potential board members’ skills and values help determine if the person is a good fit for a board. Social media posts may show if the potential board member’s values and stances are aligned with the organization. Linked In profiles provide insight on a potential board member’s skill set, career stability and nonprofit engagement. Google searches can be rather revealing. One nonprofit in large urban area uncovered that two potential board members had recently been embroiled in a contentious lawsuit, and so neither were asked to be on the board.
The most effective research tool is a face-to-face exploratory meeting. While it may seem like an opportune time to share the nonprofit’s strategic plan, a better strategy would be to use Stephen Covey’s fifth habit, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Start the conversation by asking the potential board member to talk about themselves. Does the person use “I” or “we” when referring to business or volunteering successes? Does the potential member’s comments about his or her place of business sound like a well-rounded review or like a fishing expedition for sales leads? When describing business or community engagement, what makes the person’s face light up? At some point, the potential board member should start asking questions about the nonprofit’s programs, key performance indicators, who the organization serves and how he or she can serve. Conversation only about his or herself or the company may be a sign that the individual may not be a good fit. Likewise, if questions about your organization only seem to be about marketing visibility or how many sales the business can expect, he or she is probably not a good candidate. Another red flag is when a potential board member thinks your organization should add a pet cause to the agenda that it is in not related to your mission or the community your organization serves.
Finding the best board members for your organization is one of the most important roles of the CEO. Taking the extra time to assess, define and research will help find those members that will strengthen the organization.