How to Get the Board You Need

Since I am supposedly an expert in nonprofit financial matters, I shouldn’t be surprised that I am frequently invited to join nonprofit boards. I am surprised, though, when I’m recruited for the board of a nonprofit that I have no knowledge of, with no past relationship, and in a field of service in which I’ve never shown a particular interest. What do they think I will bring to this board? The honest answer is that I will be able to read their financial statements. I agree that financial oversight is an essential board role, and one that boards do not always perform well. For evidence of that, just read any of the recent stories about fraud, misuse of funds or insider transactions. I also know that it’s challenging to recruit board members who understand financial reports, budgets, cash flow, and audits. But is a specific skill – financial knowledge – enough of a reason by itself to invite someone to join the board? As the invitee, I would say no. I have some questions that I ask when I’m recruited for a board. First, of course, is whether I believe that the work the organization does, and how they go about it, is exciting and important to me. I’ve been asked to serve on boards of social service, health care, performing arts, literary arts, visual arts, community development, faith-based, education, and youth service nonprofits. I care deeply about some of these issues and not so much about others. Uninterested board members are often unengaged board members. My next question is, “why me?” The fact that I can read and understand financial reports is not a good enough answer.

The starting point of board recruiting needs to be a broader understanding of what kind of governance and leadership the organization needs, and how the board as a whole and as individual members can deliver on those needs. A common tool for board recruitment is a matrix that lists the skills and other attributes that are needed on the board on one side and current board members across the top. Fill in the boxes and, voila, you see the holes that need to be filled. Too often, though, this results in a board from central casting – an attorney, a CPA or banker, a business person with a marketing background, someone who (it is hoped) has access to potential donors, and then one or two people with long histories with the organization. All of these board members have skills and abilities but don’t always add up to become a great governance and leadership board. How can you get the board you need?

First, open your mind beyond technical skills about what you need from individual board members. I’ve seen grids that list not only the specific skills like marketing, fundraising, financial, etc. but also personal qualities like “boat rocker” and “challenges status quo”. The list of skills and attributes needs to change over time, too, and project into the future – aligned with the strategic plan – what the organization will need to get it where it wants to go. I think that this enhanced grid can start to get closer to the broader needs.

Second, think about the board as a group, not as a collection of individuals. Think about what styles, attributes, and skills will work together to create the best board team.

Third, consider how you actually develop a list of nominees. Too often, a spontaneous and short brainstorming session evolves into a definitive list. The board, or a nominating committee, thinks of names of people they know of – off the top of their heads – and that becomes the list. I think that this is where my name tends to come up. Better to take some time to research and find people who will be the best match with the organization’s work, the skills and leadership attributes needed, and the dynamics of the group. Ideally this is an ongoing process so that you always have a list of potential board candidates. While this post is on the topic of recruiting new board members, many of the same ideas can apply to sitting board members through an assessment process. I have found some very practical and concise thoughts about board assessments on the Starboard blog by Jeff Wahlstrom like this excerpt from a recent entry – Board member, assess thyself.

  • Do I know what is expected of me?
  • Do I have what it takes?
  • Do I have the necessary tools, information and instruction to succeed?
  • Is what I’m doing on the board making a meaningful difference?
  • Is there an opportunity here to make better use of my abilities/skills/experience/knowledge?
  • Am I enjoying the experience of serving on the board?
  • What would make my board experience even better?
  • And (most importantly) what goals should I set for myself and my board experience?
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