United States: Building A Dream Team—How To Manage The Board Selection Process

Last Updated: November 6 2014
Article by Sarah G. Widlock

Having a leadership team that can drive your not-for-profit organization through hard economic times is more important than ever. Combine that large order with another important factor –  transparency –  and you have your work cut out for you. So how can you put together a board of directors that can nimbly pick up the ball while satisfying the community your not-for-profit serves?

Look for a Strong Offense and Defense

New federal rules regarding board member selection, notably recent IRS Form 990 disclosure requirements, call for greater due diligence in selecting members to serve. A good place to start is by putting yourself in the shoes of your contributors, funders and constituency when evaluating your current board. Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Does the board's makeup represent a range of diversity and inclusiveness? Diversity can cover gender, race, geography, age, expertise and other factors. Inclusiveness is how well the board's makeup mirrors your organization's mission.
  2. Is it easy to see how each board member aligns with your not-for-profit's mission? Consider including a personal statement from board members on your website and other promotional materials that define their passion for your cause.
  3. What commitment do board members make? Some not-for-profits ask board members to sign contracts outlining their commitment, including the time they will commit, the funds they promise to donate or raise and the duties they will perform. If you choose to have your board members sign such a contract, be sure the public knows about it so that everyone knows your expectations.

The first step in formalizing the recruitment process is to identify the talents your organization needs. Although some not-for-profits believe anyone willing to lend their time qualifies for board membership, specific personal and professional strengths will help the board– and the not-for-profit– function more effectively.

Some desirable qualities to seek out include:

  • An understanding of the services provided;
  • A passion for the organization's mission;
  • A willingness to commit the time to attend most, if not all, board functions;
  • An ability to work well in a team environment;
  • Communication skills; and
  • A desire to represent the organization in a positive manner.

Once you determine the personal attributes of your ideal board member, identify the professional skills needed by the board. Most boards include individuals with backgrounds in finance and accounting, business management, marketing, human resources and areas specific to the not-for-profit's services, such as health care, education or literacy.

Put Team Goals Front and Center

You also should consider your organization's strategic goals and current challenges. Think about the makeup of the current board and ask: Do we have any gaps in experience that we need filled? What new board member skills are top priorities?

You may be able to recruit community members with some of those skills to serve on committees rather than as board members. That way you can get to know the volunteers' strengths and skills first without making a long-term commitment. Over time, you may be able to groom these committee members for viable board membership.

Search Well and Widely

Identifying candidates is the next step. Just as you would for a paid leadership position, assemble a pool of candidates for each board seat. In many organizations, current board members supply candidates' names. Recruiting new board members "cold" might not be as simple. If your not-for-profit is finding it difficult locating the right people to sign on, try these strategies:

  • When representing the organization in a speech or other public appearance, mention that you are always looking for people interested in becoming active volunteers or board members.
  • Get the word out that you are looking for new board members by asking friends, business colleagues and family members whether they know someone who would be a good candidate.
  • Advertise in a local newspaper, alumni newsletter and the not-for-profit's newsletter, and post an ad on the organization's website.
  • Consider whether current volunteers are qualified to serve as board members.
  • Invite 20 community leaders to an informational luncheon to learn about your organization. Ask each to recommend a potential board member (after checking with that person) and then contact him or her.
  • Pick four or five organizations that have common missions or interests and ask their boards if they have retiring board members who might be interested in joining your board.

Keep in mind that the candidates will be interviewing your organization, too — it is a two-way street. Be ready to provide information on your not-for-profit.

After you have identified a group of prospective candidates, ask them to fill out an application — and then pick the best ones for the board to consider. This approach gives control to the board, with the applicants competing as they would for any job.

The application form should outline some of your expectations. For example, a good question might be: Are you willing to contribute about six hours a month for board meetings and committee work? Be sure to also ask about the applicant's background and expertise, especially in the areas where you have identified a needed skill.

Make Your Draft Picks

Offer a brief orientation and tour for prospective board members to introduce them to your organization and explain your mission. Invite the prospects to attend a board meeting to meet current members and see how the board functions. You may want to have the director or a member of the board's nominating or executive committee interview each candidate one-on-one. This helps determine whether the person will be a good fit and a productive addition to your board.

Once you complete this process, you will have enough information for the board members to select the best candidate. You also may find that you have gathered information on several other possible board members whom you can consider for the next opening.

Transition New Players

Once you have selected a new board member, you can do several things to make his or her transition a smooth one. Give a full orientation on your organization, including the issues you are facing and all of the services and programs you provide. You also should brief new members on their legal responsibilities. The background will help your new board member represent your organization well in the community.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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