Nonprofits have long been challenged by unmet expectations in board member engagement and performance.
The latest research from BoardSource reinforces the prevalence of this issue. Leading With Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices reports that a high percentage of nonprofits experience difficulty with successful board recruitment. The analysis also identifies other board needs, such as increased diversity, more strategic thinking, and a higher level of engagement in advocacy.
Whatever the challenges, they can be effectively and proactively addressed by starting with an honest evaluation of your current board recruitment practices.
If your board isn’t performing as desired, you should face facts: You are probably recruiting the wrong individuals. Critique the prospecting process instead of criticizing the individuals who said yes to a board service invitation.
Because many organizations wait until the last minute and then frantically search for board replacements, they are willing to accept less than ideal prospect choices. Furthermore, they do not fully communicate expectations for fear the prospect will turn down the invitation. The predictable result is a board composed of slot-fillers.
Slot-fillers may be nice people, but they aren’t going to deliver on an organization’s performance needs.
Recruiting success starts with this intentional process: Identify the what, and then identify the who. Nonprofits must commit to an ongoing board recruitment process so that prospects are continually being identified and vetted for future vacancies. This helps avoid the take-what-you-can-get approach that is certain to produce a hot mess of frustration.
Learn from College Sports Recruiting
The recruitment process followed by top college athletic teams provides an excellent model for nonprofit boards.
Successful teams are meticulously purposeful in their methodology. They devote time and resources to evaluating and cultivating prospects. Their approach first identifies their specific needs and then the prospects who meet them. They place a premium on selecting prospects who will be a good fit.
An organized system recognizes players with potential as early as youth league and tracks them through their senior year in high school. Coaches are assigned to monitor progress and develop relationships. Before offering a scholarship, teams have a high level of confidence that a prospect will meet anticipated expectations.
Can one compare a college’s focus on maintaining an ongoing pipeline of quality players to nonprofit board selection? Absolutely, but unfortunately, nonprofit board member recruitment is often just the opposite of the intensive effort that goes into the quest for the best possible athletes. It shouldn't be.
Recruiting board members with a process similar to that of top-ranked teams has two definite benefits. First, organizations are more likely to fill board seats with individuals who will meet performance expectations. Second, the frustration caused by selection mistakes is diminished.
Renowned University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari explains results-focused recruiting in his book Players First. He has established a phenomenal record of success. The reason is his ability not only to consistently recruit top-ranked prospects but also to get this collection of all-star players who are used to being the top attention-getters in high school to share the spotlight with others and to buy in to his system.
Calipari says he is recruiting for a non-traditional program and needs special players who can meet its pressure-filled expectations. In every recruiting class, he’s looking for championship players. And he knows what he wants from them: the skills, physical attributes, work ethic, and mental and emotional maturity to play in the high exposure world of Kentucky basketball, as well as a willingness to be coached and fit into a system that demands teamwork.
With that template established, Calipari’s recruiting effort then focuses on finding players who will be the best fit for the team. It’s a very deliberate process built on first identifying the what and then the who.
Overcome Recruitment Difficulties
Unlike magical unicorns, performance-committed board member prospects do exist. It takes planning and effort to find them. Working in advance of when board seats need to be filled allows for devoting time to identifying the most desirable prospects.
Determine what your board needs in terms of skills, experience, expertise, diversity, etc. Then build and maintain a list of potentials comprising referrals from existing board members. Consider current donors and active volunteers to be viable possibilities. Take advantage of online search tools to seek out key background information that will indicate interest, ability, and experience. Be on alert for new names not yet showing up on other organizations’ board lists.
Establish an evaluation report card to grade and rank each prospect for priority targeting. Meet with each targeted prospect. Discuss your organization and what it expects of its board members: learn about his or her interests. When ready to issue an invitation to join the board, make it a personal ask from the board chair, the chair of the governance committee, or a board member the prospect has a relationship with.
Not every prospect invitation will get a yes; when that’s the case, don’t dismay. A no might be the best answer for everyone.
Commit to Process
Committing to and taking action on a process will increase your recruiting success — a success that includes getting board members who will be invested in making a difference.
Here are seven action essentials to build a foundation for creating a successful board recruiting process.
- Make recruiting quality board members a board and governance committee priority.
- Commit to the time and structured focus necessary for producing the high value board members your organization wants and your mission deserves.
- Establish standards for skills, expertise, experience, and commitment.
- Identify the factors for determining if a prospect will be a good fit for your particular board.
- Develop a pool of possible candidates who meet your criteria. Include those who might not be ready now but could be desirable in the future. Keep replenishing the list as prospects either join the board or are eliminated from consideration.
- Do your homework. Incorporate systematic evaluation and relationship building that leads to good selection decisions.
- Work in advance. Just as college teams don't wait until graduation day to start thinking about how they will replace a departing player, don't wait until a vacancy occurs to begin your search for a board replacement. Make it a continuous process.
Teams competing for championships want championship-level players. Is settling for get-what-you-get results going to deliver what your organization needs? Of course not. Your mission deserves championship-level board members.
Increase board engagement and reduce board-related frustration by developing and using a structured process that recruits performance-minded, well-matched board members.
What good recruitment practices have worked for your nonprofit? Sharing successes (or perhaps lessons learned from less than positive results) will help our nonprofit community.
In addition to Leading with Intent, take a look at the Stanford Survey on Leadership and Management in the Nonprofit Sector, on which BoardSource was a collaborative partner. This report also addresses board performance issues and identifies areas where board improvement is needed.