Six Straightforward Rules for Finding the Right Members for a Nonprofit’s Board of Directors

Few tasks facing a nonprofit organization are more important — or more difficult — than identifying and recruiting the right members for the board of directors. A strong, capable board can provide the sound governance and public credibility that a nonprofit needs to survive and thrive. But as many nonprofits have discovered, a board-member search can be the most difficult type of search to conduct effectively.

One key problem is that for various reasons, most nonprofit organizations can’t use the money they’ve raised for board development. Historically, donors — who are, after all, critical to any nonprofit’s success — haven’t seen the value of using their funds in this way. In fact, many major donors and donor organizations have explicit policies that prohibit the use of raised money for any type of organizational advancement. For years, nonprofit executive directors had no choice but to rely on board candidates who were friends, family members or business associates of other board members.

Fortunately, this attitude is changing, slowly, as donors remember the truth of the old adage “You get what you pay for.” And nonprofits’ executive directors are becoming increasing vocal about the need for board members with different — and better — skills.

Today’s nonprofit organizations need much more from their board members, and that means they need to take board recruitment much more seriously. That’s why I’ve put together a set of straightforward recommendations, based on my years of recruiting experience in the private, public and nonprofit sectors, for nonprofit organizations that are looking for the very best candidates for their boards of directors.

1. Decide What the Board Should Look Like

There may have been a time when it was enough to have board members who were socially or professionally prominent in their communities and could simply lend their names to the organization, but those days are long past. A nonprofit needs to begin its search efforts by identifying what capabilities it needs on its board. These may be specific professional skills — for example, financial management or human resources expertise. It may be knowledge of the community or constituency the nonprofit has been set up to serve. And it may, for example, be particularly important that the board reflect the social and cultural diversity of the organization itself — literally, looking like the organization and the people it serves. These are all decisions that need to be made before any search effort begins.

2. Determine How Well the Board Currently Measures Up

The nonprofit’s executive director, the current board of directors and the nominating committee — more on that in a moment — should have open, honest and ongoing discussions about the makeup of the board, to determine how well it meets the defined needs of the organization. And those discussions may well result in some members leaving the board. If the nonprofit doesn’t already have bylaws establishing how long each board member should serve, creating them should be a first step. Then, every year, each member of the board needs to be evaluated as to whether he or she has performed to expectations. Sometimes board members have life-changing events that make it more difficult for them to continue to serve effectively, but worry that they’ll be letting the organization down if they leave. I’ve spoken with many board members who actually welcomed the opportunity to step down because their personal or professional circumstances had changed.

3. Establish A Nominating Committee That Reflects the Board’s Strengths

The nominating committee — which is integral to any search, and is often where the search process breaks down — should be made up of the most committed individuals on the board. The members of the nominating committee should be willing and able to attend weekly progress calls, and participate actively in the search and interview process. Each committee member doesn’t necessarily have to conduct an initial interview with every candidate — that’s especially difficult if the committee is large or geographically distributed — but the committee’s leadership definitely should. And the committee should work closely with the executive director, every step of the way. This doesn’t mean the executive director needs to be, or even should be, a member of the nominating committee itself. But someone needs to keep the committee on track and aligned with the board’s priorities, especially because a nonprofit’s boards of directors tends to have significantly more influence than a for-profit’s board. And the person best equipped to keep everything on track is the executive director.

4. When Choosing a Search Firm, Look for One That Aligns with Your Organization’s Priorities and Values

Nonprofit organizations increasingly recognize that finding the right board members requires the use of an experienced, dedicated search firm. The challenge is to identify a firm that aligns fully with the values of the organization. Another challenge is to find a firm that embraces the “art of the search;” one that employs creativity in sourcing and recruiting candidates. It isn’t easy, but it can be done. One approach is to generate a list of questions that the nominating committee can ask the search firms that are under consideration. Here are a few:

  • “What is your firm’s capacity, and how many searches are you working on at present?” A board-member search for a nonprofit is every bit as complex and demanding as the search for a private-sector CEO, and it can — no, it will — take a significant amount of the firm’s time and resources.
  • “What experience do you have working with organizations like ours?” “Do you have any past or present clients we could speak with?” Questions about past experience are particularly important when dealing with boutique search firms, because they tend to be more specialized than larger firms.
  • “How have you demonstrated creativity in your search work?” In light of increased accessibility – including social networks and other online search tools – it’s relatively easy to find names of potentially suitable candidates. So it’s critical to assess a firm’s passion for the “art of the search.” Can he or she choose a candidate that matches and illuminates your canvas of an idea for the Board?
  • “Who in your firm will actually be conducting this search?” Board member searches for nonprofit organizations are more often than not completed by someone who is known by the board through personal or professional connections. While that individual may take the early meetings and engage initially with the board, the actual search may be conducted by a junior member of the contact’s firm – this is particularly true of larger search organizations. It is important to know and connect with the individual who will be performing on the project. This is particularly critical for a board-level search.
  • “Do you have any ‘hands off’ agreements that would keep you from contacting certain organizations?” Many of the most attractive board candidates will likely already be affiliated with other organizations. If the search firm has any conflicts of interest that will stand in the way of an effective search, you need to know it up front.

5. Make Sure Prospective Board Members Understand Any Fundraising Expectations the Organization Has

In the past, board members of nonprofit organizations were seldom asked to help with fundraising. Now, however, it’s often a critical requirement, and more and more nonprofits are asking for “give” or “get” amounts from each of their directors. One reason is that grant makers want to make sure the organizations they choose to fund have boards that are aligned with their missions before they commit to funding them. It’s also important for a nonprofit’s executive director to be able to demonstrate 100% commitment from the board, as evidenced by the number of directors who have made direct or indirect financial contributions. It is important to be direct with prospective board members regarding fundraising expectations.

6. Don’t Compromise on the Quality of the Board

An increasing number of nonprofits, and especially their executive directors, are working to build a new kind of board of directors. Above all, that means directors who share a passion for, and a commitment to, the nonprofit’s mission. They reflect the communities they’ve set out to serve, and they have strong ties to those communities. They’re diverse in all the ways that matter: age, gender, race, religion, occupation, skills, professions and backgrounds. And above all, they’re willing to roll up their sleeves and work. And these exceptional directors are out there. They’re not easy to find, and they’re likely to be much sought-after, but they’re well worth the time, effort and cost of the search.

About Trilogy Search Non+Profit: Trilogy Search Non+Profit is a retained executive recruitment firm headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area. Trilogy specializes in placing executives who are multi- dimensional, integrated, and equipped to effectively lead for-profit and nonprofit institutions. The company conducts C-level searches and builds executive management teams for high technology, clean technology, life sciences, non-profit, and philanthropy clients.

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