December 17, 2001

Tips for Recruiting the Best Board Members


By Tom Chalkley

Last year, the Georgia Center for Nonprofits, which provides management advice and training to more than 1,100 members, spun off from the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. In the process, the center's executive director, Karen Beavor, found herself practicing what she had preached when she had to search for new trustees.


A sampling of articles, books, videos, and other informationfor recruiting and managing a board.

"We needed to create a real board," she says. "It was an interesting scenario because we were 10 years old, yet new."

A good board can offer not only vision and direction to a nonprofit group, but nuts-and-bolts skills, vital community connections, fund-raising support, and institutional memory. A poorly assembled board, by contrast, can undermine a charity's mission. "If you don't have excellent, strong, committed, diverse leadership," declares Ms. Beavor, "you will wither on the vine."

To help find the right trustees, Ms. Beavor and other nonprofit leaders offer the following suggestions:

Take time to plan. One of the most common mistake organizations make, Ms. Beavor says, is waiting until the last minute to assemble their boards. "It's really a year-long process," she says. First, her organizing committee drew up a chart projecting the overall development of the proposed organization. The timeline for identifying, recruiting, and training new board members grew from the overall organizational plan.

Identify the charity's needs. Think of the board as an extension of the organization. "Building [our] board was like putting together a staff," Ms. Beavor says, "thinking through what talents and strengths and skills we'd need to get to our goals."

Typically, some board members are selected because they have expertise in areas related to a charity's mission. Dan Jordan, board chairman of the Health Improvement Partnership in Spokane, Wash., says his organization looks for representatives from the constituencies that have an interest in his group's efforts to deliver health services to city residents, including medical providers, employers, insurers, and civic leaders from low-income neighborhoods. Board members, Mr. Jordan says, were also invited because they possessed skills that weren't mission-related, including expertise in financial management, fund raising, and public relations, and thus were valuable because they could look out for the well-being of the organization itself.

Most consultants advise that charities find at least one board member who understands tax laws and other statutes affecting nonprofit organizations. That person needn't be a lawyer, says Peter Berns, executive director of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations, which represents more than 1,000 groups. "It could be an accountant," he suggests, "or the executive of another nonprofit who has experience with the law."

In addition to a tax expert, Mr. Berns recommends including someone who understands governance, both to help meetings stay on track and advise on relations between board and staff members. An entrepreneur who knows how to create a business plan would also make a valuable addition, Ms. Beavor says.

Identify candidates. After deciding which slots need to be filled, organizers can begin scouting for people to fill them. Ms. Beavor says, "We started brainstorming with our staff, with [the parent organization's] board, and with every funder, asking, 'Who do you know that has these particular skills? '"

After compiling a long list of people with desirable credentials, her committee considered more personal attributes, she says, such as, "Are they connected? Do they have time? Are they fun and easy to work with? If they fit the job description, we started having conversations." Eventually, her committee worked its way down to a short list of candidates who were invited to lunch or coffee for active recruitment.

Ensure diversity. In addition to bringing skills and connections to the table, Mr. Berns advises, boards should reflect the people a charity serves. Mr. Berns' group, which provides services to a wide range of nonprofit organizations, values diversity so much that its bylaws stipulate the assignment of board seats to representatives of specific groups. A certain number of seats are held by executive directors of member organizations, while others are reserved according to mission areas, geography, and so on. Some organizations adopt diversity guidelines to guard against homogeneity.

While board diversity should help a charity keep in touch with its mission and its membership, Mr. Berns warns against letting diverse interests become conflicting or competing interests within an organization. "We often find situations where people join boards thinking they're coming on in some representative capacity," he says. "They don't understand that once they're on the board, their fiduciary responsibility is to the board they're on. Any other interests they have really ought to be checked at the door."

Set clear expectations. The matter of fiduciary duty -- the responsibility to keep an organization fiscally and ethically sound -- raises the issue of commitment. Nonprofit organizations need to make sure that they recruit people who are ready to produce results. It's up to charities to be frank with board candidates about the workload they will carry if they agree to serve. Mr. Berns urges nonprofit groups to establish formal requirements about meeting attendance, personal financial contributions, participation in fund raising, and serving on working committees. In some cases, Mr. Jordan says, "You need to be willing to sit down and negotiate with people how they're going to give of their time."

Organizations should not court leaders who, regardless of their good qualities, are clearly too busy to serve. Ms. Beavor says that small charities frequently "try to go for an executive vice president or a CEO, but they really need someone who can actually do a lot of work."

Workload is not the only matter to be broached with candidates. An organization's culture -- or even its work -- may need to be explained. Mr. Jordan's group, for example, makes decisions by consensus rather than majority rule. "We've got to establish from the get-go that we're a very open group," he says. "Our decision-making process takes time to work its way through differences."

Plan for succession. Finally, because charities grow and evolve, Ms. Beavor urges them to develop systems to continually cultivate new leadership. Her group established a board committee that generates a list of the top 30 corporate leaders, nonprofit leaders, journalists, and foundation leaders that her organization wishes to cultivate."This widens our pool of recruits," she says, "and keeps the full board engaged in ongoing board development."

Some charities use committees that oversee specific programs within their organization as incubators for potential board members. "You get [volunteers'] expertise, but you're not asking for more of their time until they're sure they want to give it," says Mr. Jordan.

And when looking toward the future, look for younger board candidates. Liz Schepman, who runs the Board Builders program at Nonprofit Enterprise at Work, an Ann Arbor, Mich. organization that offers management support to charities, says many leaders age 35 and under are eager to get involved with a nonprofit group. "They're saying, 'Now that my career is established, it's time for me to turn around and help the community.'" Ms. Schepman suggests contacting local United Way and Junior League organizations, as well as churches, synagogues, or government-sponsored volunteer banks.

The eventual result of a disciplined, strategic recruitment process is that when new board members sign on, Ms. Beavor says, "They're engaged from Day 1," she adds. "They know why they're there and why they are needed."