Wednesday, April 6, 2016

One board thing: Schedule pre-invitation prospective member visits

What if you could do just one thing - make one adjustment in the way your board works - and spark some meaningful change in its performance?

I hope that most of what I describe here may make sense, even be downright compelling. But some of it may feel completely out of reach for a board that struggles with some of the more basic aspects of nonprofit governance.

What if you could change just one thing to get unstuck, move away from a vexing performance problem, stimulate new interest, or make the job just a little bit easier for busy community volunteer leaders?

Many boards need or want more than "one thing" to reach their full governance potential. But "one thing" may move some of them in the right direction - or at least resolve a small challenge before it becomes a bigger one.

In that spirit, I'm launching a periodic, mid-week series called "one board thing." I've been thinking about this for a while now; but a tweet earlier this week, spotlighting one simple practice that made a big difference for a local board where I served, provided the spark to launch it today. So here goes...

If I could change just one thing to enhance nonprofit board practice, I would institute a meeting visitation requirement as part of our new member  prospecting/recruitment process. 

No one should be cold-calling prospective board members.  Board recruitment needs to be a thoughtful, extended, cultivation of prospects based on current and future leadership and expertise needs.  One part of that thoughtful process should be a requirement that each prospect visit a number of board meetings before an invitation to serve is extended or accepted.

Meeting visitation allows the individual to observe how the board works and interacts together. It offers a sense of process and structure. It creates an opportunity to learn more about the organization and its mission. It offers insight into whether I, as a potential member, might have something to offer (and whether I feel I can work with this group of people). 

It gives the board and staff in attendance an opportunity to interact with the prospect - to answer questions and get a better sense of who this person is and what he/she might have to offer.  If, at the end of the visitation process, both sides feel like the fit is a potentially good one, whey can proceed with the recruitment process.

As I mentioned above, I experienced this process as a prospect and as a member of a local nonprofit board. We required three visits to our monthly meetings before deciding whether to extend an invitation. The board used those visits to get to know each prospect better, via pre- and post-session interactions and time for questions at the end of each meeting.

As a prospect, I had a chance to listen to the agenda topics and determine whether I had enough interest to commit to them and a specific way that I could contribute to the group's understanding of them. I had a chance to see board members in action and decide whether I could not only work but thrive in that environment. I had a chance to get a sense of whether I could be part of that team. When the offer did come, at the end of the third visit, I said yes. I served six years, two terms, to the best of my ability.

As a board member, I participated on the other side of the process. Details about successful placements are mostly gone by now. But I do remember on important fact: in the six years that I served, we had only one prospective board member decide on her own that it really wouldn't be a good fit before joining. We also had only one truly bad fit, for reasons that I'm not sure could have been discovered in advance. (Stuff happens.) For the most part, when we entered into a new board relationship, it was a productive partnership. We'd tested the waters before sailing off together.

I'll acknowledge that exceptions may exist. I also acknowledge that our three-visit rule may not be practical for all boards. In fact, it became slightly problematic as I retired from that board and it moved to quarterly meetings. (Big mistake, by the way - one they eventually corrected.) But the premise is a strong one: no blind dates or arranged governance marriages that prove troublesome for member and board.)

Moving forward, I'm thinking about making this a semi-monthly/every other week series here. I have a long list of "one things" already collected, ready for sharing in this space. I may alternate these with the "great questions" series that Question Week inspired. As always, I welcome your feedback and your ideas.

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