Board Recruitment: It’s Not Just Paint By Numbers

January 28, 2013

Finding the right board members is part science and part art.  The science is easy; the art, as with anything creative, is the harder part.

In a nutshell, the science part of finding good board members who bring to the table the skills, energy, evangelism, and overall non-fiscal assets (though fiscal assets are always welcomed)—that your strategic plan suggests are needed to accomplish all that is laid out therein is this:  the more you treat your recruitment and on-boarding process as you would a hire, the more successful you will be in finding board members who meet your needs and who will do the work.  Essentially, that means the following:

  • Determine what the position of board member will require;
  • Write the job description;
  • Determine the interview process—from phone screen to first interview to second, etc.;
  • Identify what knowledge you want and need the candidates to have during the recruitment process, remembering that the more a candidate knows about the organization and the job of being a board member for your organization before saying yes, the more likely it is that s/he will do the work once s/he comes onto the board.  Provide an accurate and full picture of the organization and the board;
  • Identify what experiences candidates should have during the recruitment process, from attending a board meeting to watching the mission in action to serving on a committee for some period of time;
  • Decide what you will offer those candidates who don’t make it onto the board but who you want to keep close to the organization.  Service on a standing committee or an ad hoc committee? (Yes, this is divergent from a true hiring process, as we don’t normally get the “runners up” to stay involved in the organization.);
  • Design a good orientation process, realizing that much of the content of this process should be reinforcing what the current board members learned during recruitment and remembering that you must orient new board members to both the organization and the role of a board member and board;
  • Assign a mentor to each new board member.

This is, to a great extent, an almost paint by numbers process:  a challenge to the creators of the product but a piece of cake to those who must simply follow the design.

The creativity lies in the execution.  Just what skills and qualities are  needed on the board at this point in time in the organization’s life cycle?  Remember that what is needed on a board changes as an organization evolves through its life cycles and as its strategic priorities change.  And while it is relatively easy to identify those hard skills and areas of expertise that would be beneficial to a board and an organization, it is the soft skills and personality traits that are so essential to forming a good strong “community” of board members.  These aspects are harder to identify and even harder to discern in others until they are seen in action.  And yet, it is more often than not a board member’s personality that causes a board to move from function to dysfunction and not his/her expertise that compromises the dynamics.

Assessing those more intangible qualities that make for a great board member requires the creativity.  It could be as simple as requiring service on a standing committee prior to being nominated for a board seat or having the on-boarding process involve multiple kinds of situations, from formal interviews to social situations to small group work or any of a multitude of imaginative options.

Anyone who has ever done any hiring knows the challenges of constructing questions to get at the information you really want to know.  For example, there is logic (and anecdotal evidence) in the thinking that a person who understands and embraces the importance of philanthropy is more likely to accept as part of a board member’s job the responsibility to be an active participant in fundraising.  It would, however, not be a fruitful idea to try to determine a candidate’s commitment to active philanthropy by asking the straightforward question, “Do you embrace the importance of philanthropy?”  Nor would you get where you need to go by asking, “Do you like to fundraise?”  Rather, finesse is required here—and creativity.  Perhaps a request to hear about the candidate’s earliest recollection of working on behalf of a nonprofit (such as collecting money for UNICEF when trick or treating or joining a parent for a charity walk/run/ride) and why they did it and what they learned; or perhaps you ask a candidate to talk about the role charity/philanthropy played/plays in her/his family.  Or perhaps you ask about his/her most recent philanthropic activity to discern the candidate’s understanding of philanthropy.

In a different vein, we want every board member to be passionate about our organization’s mission; simply liking it isn’t good enough!  How will you tease out the existence of that passion?  What questions or scenarios can you develop to achieve that goal? How will you make sure that all candidates who go beyond the first round embrace the organization’s core values?  For example, if a core value is integrity, it is hard to imagine someone saying, in response to the direct question, “No, I don’t believe in the need to always act with integrity.”  So, once again, how will you get the real answer to that all-important question?

Inventiveness is required from the start of the on-boarding process—identifying what you need–to its end—orientation.  The orientation process should involve more than reading a manual.  It is an opportunity to shine the spotlight on the organization’s work and its staff, clients and accomplishments; it must emphasize the work of the board and its responsibilities and consequences for failing to fulfill them.  And here, inventiveness can take flight—from tours of competitors’ organizations to shadowing a staff member for a day,   to having mentors for each new board member.

If you want good board members, the science is essential; but the sugar, spice and ingenuity also play are role.  With over 40,000 nonprofits in the state of New Jersey, your organization probably isn’t the only one pursuing the same potential board candidate.  Make your on-boarding process standout from start to finish and show candidates the true caliber of your board.

Image: Found on xexchicago, color-in dress by fashion designer Berber Soepboer and graphic designer Michiel Schuurman.

Laura Otten is the Executive Director at The Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University. She is also a faculty member of the Dodge Technical Assistance Initiative. Find out more about our nonprofit capacity building workshops here.