This post is the first in a recurring "10 ways" series - quick, practical responses to common questions about nonprofit boards and the work that they do. None of the challenges I'll spotlight are easily addressed in "10 ways." Rather, I'll share a snapshot of the kinds of counsel I might offer if we were to meet on a street corner and talk about common board concerns. Where possible, I'll link to posts that offer more detail on the concepts shared.
It's an all-too-familiar board routine: the annual meeting is next month, we need to replace retiring board members, and we have no idea how to fill those vacancies. We're scrambling this year - again - but we'd really like to break out of this endless (and endlessly frustrating) cycle. What are 10 ways to think and act differently to lay the foundation for a better board recruitment process?
1. First, recognize that it is a year-round process - and act as if that were the case. Even if you are engaged in focused activity at various points in the year (e.g., extending invitations to new members who take office at an annual meeting), the process of identifying and cultivating prospective members should be a recurring one. Members should always be aware of recruiting needs as they interact in the community and their workplaces. Who do we know - who do our networks know - who might be a good fit for our leadership team?
2. Clarify your board's ultimate recruitment needs. Think broadly about those needs: what values, expertise areas, commitments, work styles, connections to stakeholders, etc., do you need to govern effectively? The marvelous Hildy Gottlieb introduced me to a framework that has reshaped my approach to board recruitment: identifying a board's "must haves," "would be nices," and "never in a million years" needs. (Order Hildy's book, Board Recruitment & Orientation: A Step-by-Step, Common Sense Guide, for a full description and related resources.) The "must haves" are those qualities, commitments and values that each member must possess. They are the bottom line and the foundation from which all recruitment must be built. These are the non-negotiables. The "wouldn't it be nices" are those skills, perspectives, etc., that the board requires, but not necessarily within each individual member. What skills, experiences, connections to key stakeholder groups, work styles, etc., are needed at the boardroom table? The "never in a million years" criteria are exactly what the label suggests: those dispositions and challenges that we never want to invade our boardroom.
3. Identify, and appreciate, what your current board members already bring to the table. Use your "musts" and "nice" lists to guide a self-assessment of the qualities, skills and connections that you already have in the boardroom. This accomplishes three goals: recognizes and articulates the contributions that members already are making, gives them - and you - an opportunity to discover talents that exist but are not being utilized fully, and spotlights recruitment needs.
4. Consider needs that build future capacity. It's not enough to simply replace the outgoing attorney with another lawyer (or otherwise fill a gap that exists because of a retirement). Consider what capacities you need to move you closer to your vision and mission in the future: what new connections you need to build, what kinds of thinkers will help you avoid falling into the same routines and decision-making processes, what new expertise will you require to expand your reach in significant new ways? You may end up recruiting a very different kind of prospective member with the future in mind.
5. Recognize and value diversity in all of its forms. How does your
board define diversity in ways that are meaningful to your organization
and your leadership responsibilities? Include, but don't limit yourself
to, the demographic variables. After serving too many years on local boards filled
with white, college-educated, middle-class women (usually with some tie
to our local university), I would never minimize the critical importance
of having people in the room who don't look like me or who aren't inclined to
think like me (because of similar life experiences). That said, I
also am wary of the potential for unintentional tokenism. No one should be recruited solely because of gender, ethnicity, age, etc. This adds to the beauty of Hildy's approach: if you're inviting an individual to join your board, you're affirming that he/she already meets the musts - commitment to your vision and mission, shared values, etc. That that person also is a member of an underrepresented demographic group, perhaps with connections to a new stakeholder community, adds to the value of the specific contributions he/she can make, but it's not the only expectation.
6. Identify your current recruitment goals based on input from ways 2-5. Now that you have clarity about what your bottom line is for board membership, the resources that already exist within your board, and your capacity needs to move you into the future, you are in a good position to define your recruitment needs.
7. Cast a wide net in making your recruitment needs known. Each board member brings different network connections that, we hope, are already hearing about the work that we do and the needs that we have (including, but not limited to, board membership). That they are already reaching out to those groups in appropriate ways should be a given. But there undoubtedly are other groups where community leaders dwell and where buy-in to your mission might be somewhat straightforward. Which groups make the most sense depends somewhat on your mission area and your community, but here is a sampling of possibilities: civic groups (e.g., Rotary, Kiwanis, Soroptimist, Toastmasters), communities of faith (churches, synagogues, mosques), schools and higher education institutions (specific departments, employee groups, etc.), other nonprofits (perhaps retiring board members looking for new ways to serve?), leadership development groups (e.g., Leadership Laramie and Leadership Wyoming), chambers of commerce and other merchant associations. I realize this list may end up yielding a lot of crossover, and I'd welcome some assistance helping me expand it even wider. What are those less-obvious sources of volunteer energy and leadership in our communities?
8. But don't ignore the home team. If your organization has a strong volunteer program, consider looking within for prospective board members. Can you find some of the expertise you need, some of the community connections you seek, amongst individuals who already have demonstrated interest and commitment to your mission? I'd never suggest looking to the volunteer pool as your sole source of board leadership; but it shouldn't be overlooked, either. You already know their level of commitment to the organization and your mission. You have an idea of how they work with others. You know, at least on a general level, what they bring to the table. This also is an argument for expanding board committees to include non-members; you benefit from the knowledge community volunteers bring to discussions and you have a chance to build the board recruitment pipeline.
9. Cultivate your prospects. Don't make a cold call right before that annual meeting vote, asking someone out of the blue to accept a nomination he/she hasn't had time to consider. Cultivate prospective members. Sit down with them, well before an invitation is extended, to introduce them to your organization and/or your board. Share a recruitment packet (yes, an actual packet) containing a board member job description, information about the board structures, detail about the nonprofit and those served - anything that can help them make an informed decision about whether they would be interested in service. Consider a pre-invitation visitation policy. One of the most successful recruitment processes I've ever witnessed (and experienced) involved a board that required three meeting visits before an invitation was extended. Three meetings may teeter on the edge of overkill; but in six years on that board, we had only one mismatch. Whether it's three, 23 or one visit, consider giving prospective board members a chance to see how you work before you invite them to join.
10. Have a plan for supporting them once they've said yes. A one-shot, fill-their-heads orientation isn't enough to launch a successful leadership journey. Develop an orientation process that provides ready access to resources to deepen their knowledge, friendly faces who can share how things really work, regular opportunities to ask questions, and meaningful responsibilities that immerse them in board work.