Recruiting Members for a Nonprofit Board

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Recruiting new members for a nonprofit board usually isn’t difficult, but it takes time and thought to recruit the members who can help the organization thrive. Recruitment should be an ongoing task for a board, complete with planning and reference checks, not a once-a-year scramble for warm bodies. (And it is definitely the board’s job, not the executive director’s.)

The first step is to identify what skills the board needs in order to best support the organization and its mission. Matrices are popular, but too often boards get stuck on occupational titles. Think beyond jobs to skills. Don’t look for “a lawyer”, look for someone who thinks analytically and knows how to deal with regulatory bodies; lawyers shouldn’t provide legal counsel to a board they are on, so if you truly need legal advice, hire the lawyer instead. Don’t recruit an accountant to do the books; look for someone who is comfortable with financial statements (maybe a business person) and can oversee a bookkeeper as Treasurer. Think broadly about skills; a board may need a team-builder or someone who seems to know everyone in town. Maybe a board member who loves organizing events or talking to groups is the best addition.

Clarify the board’s expectations of its members, either as a formal job description or at least a list everyone can agree on. How much time are board members expected to spend on board work (separate from any other volunteer work they do)? Are they expected to help with programs or focus on governing? What do you expect in the way of a donation? What about fundraising and committee work? Is there a minimum required attendance at board meetings? The better you know what you expect of board members, the better you can explain the position to candidates and the better they can do as new board members.

Think about recruitment as you would hiring an employee. Screen candidates for needed skills and check their references. What strengths will they bring to the board and the organization? When you think you have a possible candidate, ask them to join a board committee as a way to get them involved and see how they do. (If you wait until the month before an election, you don’t have time to do this.) Be prepared to turn down candidates as the vetting process goes on.

Don’t get desperate and grab warm bodies who express any interest in the nonprofit; they are unlikely to be worth their seat. Instead, look for people who have the potential to be leaders on the board. Try to choose people who could be strong future officers. (And, of course, people who will do part of the work so you don’t end up doing all of it.)

It is easy and comfortable to work with people just like yourself, but that weakens an organization. Be careful of recruiting friends all the time; everyone ends up in same social circle and there is no outside influence or perspective. Recruit for diversity on your board – and that doesn’t mean finding someone just like you who has a different color skin. Try recruiting through alternative channels; if you always recruit through social circles, try Craigslist. Make sure your board represents all the organization’s stakeholders and especially its clients, if any. If you don’t already have term limits, implement them; they are a good way to encourage turnover and keep the board perspective fresh.

Know why you want each individual you recruit, and be prepared to articulate it to them. But be aware that they may not want to contribute the same thing you want from them. A lawyer may want to contribute her ability to organize events rather than her legal skills; an accountant may prefer to contribute his public speaking skills rather than being treasurer.

Getting used to thinking about board recruitment strategically can take time if you aren’t already doing it, but it is worth it in long-term vitality of the organization. It is one of a board’s most important functions, and deserves at least as much attention as a major fundraiser.


Thanks to the Bozeman Area Community Foundation and Jono McKinney for an informative meeting!