Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Boards: Why you should recruit & how

 By Jennifer Hansen

Anyone who has served on or worked with a nonprofit board knows that one of the most difficult tasks a board faces is finding new board members.  The attempt to achieve success as a board lies in who serve on the board; who serves on the board is a result of recruitment.

So how can we strategically recruit those who would benefit our organization the most effectively, and what challenges will we face along the way? Below are some of my thoughts on recruitment, with help from some of my favorite articles.

Across-the-board challenges

Depending on the organization, there can be hundreds of different challenges in recruiting new board members, let's focus on the basics, the ones that everyone encounters.

  1. Time - Most sources you find will tell you that this is the biggest issue.  Read more about lack of time here in an article from BoardSource.  In addition to this, many board responsibilities require attendance to more events that just meetings.  It can be hard to recruit while holding a list of responsibilities they must serve.
  2. The Full Package - The search for members who possess the proper skill set needed of board members, connections, time, commitment to mission, as well as the duties of care, loyalty, and obedience.  Finding potential members of these qualities is as hard as it sounds...often, the good ones are taken.
  3. Over-Commitment - So often, we in the nonprofit community are so passionate about what we do, it is hard to give up on something.  You've been there: not enough volunteers, something needs done, and no on has time.  So we (you) step up because we hate to see our organization go without and as a result, if you serve as a board member, you often serve on more than one board.
These are the top three challenges that you will often face when attempting to recruit new board members.  But don't get discouraged!  There's more:

See the results of an excellent survey from execs and board members here that discusses more challenges.  This is a better layout of the survey after the BoardSource article above.

Six Roadblocks... is a great resource in terms of challenges local nonprofits face.  I found it very useful when trying to recruit members myself.

Another great article by Jan Masaoka discusses mistakes made by boards here.  All the mistakes aren't about recruitment, but you can relate many to your board's approach to recruitment.

Now that you know what you're up against, let's talk about some basic strategies to help you overcome and recruit some great board members!

Broad board basics

Why is it important to have an effective recruitment strategy?  Making a major investment in recruitment can have long term positive effects.  Without investing some time into who will serve on your board, you may encounter a lot of problems.
  1. Better Board, Bigger Impact is a short article discussing some basics to review before tackling recruitment strategies.
  2. Terrie Temkin provides a list of basics here that you may want to consider before creating a strategy.  Skim the list and find things that you'd like, eliminate what you don't.  Everything doesn't work for everyone.
  3. Debra Beck gives us a short explanation of why and how to recruit here.  This article would be a great way to begin a recruitment discussion during a board meeting.
Big board strategy

Here are some of the ways organizations organize the recruitment of new members:
  1. Committees - This can be used many ways.  Create a committee of board members (maybe include a volunteer and staffer) to come up with strategies to recruit.  They could also pool a group of people they think would be effective to the organization and create a matrix to weigh the pros and cons of each candidate. A great presentation and example can be found here.
  2. Elections - This is how I came to serve on a board, I was elected by those I was going to represent.  If there are several candidates willing (you're awfully lucky), holding an election can be a fair way to determine who fills the position.  However, in this case (and every case for that matter) make sure each candidate has a clear understanding of all roles and responsibilities they will be held accountable for.
  3. Invitations - A great way to obtain new board members is to ask volunteers, donors, ex-staffers.  Narrow down options using a matrix-like strategy like the one suggested above.  Once you have a candidate(s) in mind, invite them to be a part of your board.  Better yet, invite several, hold a forum to ask/answer questions of each other and see what happens.
You may use parts of all three strategies to determine who would best serve your board.  There are some great ways to combine the ideas. Here in a list of successful recruitment tips provided by boardlearning.org.

Recruitment is difficult, there is no doubt about it.  But don't settle, stay true to the mission of your organization.  There are ways to find people willing to serve on the board of your organization that will have the interests of your program at heart.  Start organizing a strategy as soon as possible to find them!


  1. First, thank you for sharing your research and experience. Having served on many boards and worked with boards as an ED, I've experienced many of the challenges you discuss in your post. In our area, I frequently see a short list of the same people all boards want to recruit. Often these are people who are perceived as being "doers" or those who have the potential to give large donations. I often find myself asking, "Is it true that these people are the best potential fit for new board members? Have we looked at who already has passion and commitment for our mission? Is our board representative of the community we serve? Who will we need going forward to help create the vision we are aiming for?"
    In reading the blog post and some of the resources listed, I had some questions for you. What if it isn't true that board recruitment is challenging? If board recruitment was energizing and rewarding, what would that make possible? How would our boards and communities be different?

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    Thank you for your post. I recently went through this search for Board members and what you say is true: over committment, time and looking for the full package are some of the biggest challenges we face when recruiting Board members. I am curious as to how you will answer Nancy's questions. Maybe it doesn't have to be so much of a challenge.

  3. Nancy,

    That is an excellent question! I do think that for some organizations, board recruitment is NOT challenging. For instance, I was elected as were my fellow board members...we wanted to serve on that board in particular because we had passion for the mission (Great public schools for every child). In my knowledge, for that board in particular, there has never been a problem recruiting.

    Board recuritment can be energizing and rewarding for the majority of nonprofits, and if this is achieved, it is safe to say that the organization will most likely flourish. Why? Experiencing board member recruitment that is rewarding will lead to a board of members who have "passion and commitment" to the mission and these members will not hesitate to "help create the vision" of the organization.

    I also agree that board recruitment may not be as "challenging" as some nonprofits make it out to be. If you have a strategy set in place as to HOW and WHY you are going to recruit, it shouldn't be challenging. That is the simplistic answer. Nonprofits often have a presentation on how to do just about anything...and in order to achieve rewarding recruitment, they must approach it the same way: strategically. The end result would be a board member that is diverse to community needs and dedicated to carrying out mission, and as I'm sure you know, this combination can be fierce in the success of a board and it's organization.

  4. Holly

    Thank you for your comment! I did respond to Nancy's post, but I wanted to respond to yours as well. In short, no, board recruitment doesn't have to be a challenge. If an organization sets up a strategy that is well thought out and relates to the success of the organization, recruitment should be relatively easy, even in spite of time constraints, board member qualities, commitment, etc.

  5. This is another great article on recruiting and it does not focus on challenges...


  6. If a board cannot find a truly appropriate candidate to fill their position, do you suggest that they leave the position open for a period of time?

  7. Jennifer,
    Good post! You had a lot of very good information that would be useful when trying to determine if you have a good board or not. I think your points on time and commitment are right on! Sometimes you get board members who do not want to give anything to the organization, they are just happy that their name is on the list! Having an involved board is very important in the success of the organization!


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