June 12, 2012

Nonprofits Need More Help Recruiting the Right Board Members

Much of the work being done to strengthen nonprofit board performance (by national and local organizations, funders, and consultants) has traditionally focused on helping boards and board members better understand their roles.

As a result, anyone with a little spare time and access to the Web can take a crash course on the basics of board effectiveness. Those with an appetite to dig deeper can find books to buy, training sessions to attend, and organizations to join.

So why are many boards still falling short?

One possibility is that we have misdiagnosed the causes of lackluster board performance—and our faulty diagnosis has led us to prescribe the wrong cure.

What if the problem is not that board members misunderstand their responsibilities. What if the problem is that nonprofits just can't find the right board members?

Boards are, after all, teams of individuals working together to fulfill a collective set of responsibilities to help an organization achieve its mission.

Jim Collins, the management consultant and bestselling author, has famously compared the role of a chief executive to that of a bus driver in charge of determining a destination and a way to get there. In Mr. Collins's view, "getting the right people on the bus" is the first and most important step in taking an organization's performance from good to great—more important, even, than defining the destination and route.

Admittedly, the bus-driver analogy doesn't translate perfectly into the nonprofit context. Having some idea of where your organization is headed does help you know who needs to be on the bus. But, to Mr. Collins' point, having the right people on your team will make all the difference when the journey becomes difficult.

But what if you just can't find the right people?

Nearly every major study of nonprofit boards over the past two decades has identified recruitment as a significant challenge for board members and nonprofit executives.

It's a tall order to find board members who care deeply about the work of the organization, who have the skills the board and the organization need, who are willing to commit the time and resources to do a good job, and who understand their role.

Too often, nonprofits are forced to settle for two or three of those attributes rather than the full list.

Is it possible that the performance of many nonprofit boards, and the organizations they serve, is languishing because the right people are not on the bus?

And if that's true, isn't it time we recognized that helping nonprofits find good board members—rather than providing reading material or training for the board members they already have—might be one of the most important things we could do to strengthen board performance?