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One of the questions we get a lot from our nonprofit clients is: How do we find passionate, engaged, committed board members? Putting together a high-functioning board isn't just about recruiting the "right" people. It's about having the proper mindset and a good plan. Here at Envision Consulting, we often describe the search for the perfect nonprofit board member as a bit like looking for romance, complete with angst-ridden courtships, elaborate proposals, occasional heartbreak, and, with a little luck, true love at the end of your search.
Still with me? Here are some tips to make your search a lot less Romeo and Juliet and a little more The Wedding Singer:
1. Have a "Wish List." You're more likely to find board members who add value to your organization if you understand (and can articulate) beforehand what it is you're looking for. Broaden your wish list beyond skills/expertise (yes, every board should have a CPA) and financial clout (believe it or not, wealthy board members don't always equate to well-resourced nonprofits). Think about the personal characteristics, perspectives, experiences, and networks a candidate is able to bring to your organization. When we have this conversation with our clients, they often tell us they want board members who are available to participate in board meetings and organizational events, have the ability to think strategically, and hold themselves (and others) accountable — the kind of intangible qualities that are difficult to quantify but can have a huge impact on the success and productivity of a board and the broader organization.
2. Fools Rush In. It takes two to tango, right? Too often, nonprofits are overly focused on finding the perfect new board member and neglect to properly "court" candidates by listening to their concerns and answering their questions — only to be shocked (shocked!) when the relationship doesn't pan out. Good board candidates will want to evaluate your organization as much as you want to evaluate them — and they're likely to be selective about which boards they agree to join. Beyond just making a good impression on the candidates you're interested in, you also may need to address how you plan to provide (in an authentic way, of course) the experience the candidate is hoping to gain by joining your board. We strongly encourage our clients to tell candidates in detail about the orientation process and other ways they support new board members.
3. Check Your Friends List. It's so When Harry Met Sally, but that 1989 film is a classic for a reason. The people you know (and who already like you) are the people most likely to be interested in and ready to make a bigger commitment to your organization. Nonprofits often look at major donors as potential board members, but what about loyal volunteers, younger supporters who have served energetically as ambassadors, and corporate supporters with a pool of skilled in-house professionals looking for community leadership opportunities? In most cases, people who are invested in your mission will check the "passion" and "commitment" boxes, but too often nonprofits don't go deep enough into their databases to find those hidden gems. Remember, it's far easier for a new board member to dive into board service with an organization he or she already is familiar with.
4. Swipe Right. Match.com, Tinder, Bumble....in 2018, there are no lack of tech tools to help you find that special someone. Unfortunately, the options for nonprofits and potential board candidates aren't as extensive (yet!). But there are some very solid tools that can be used to support your search. VolunteerMatch offers postings for board positions, and it also has options to connect those postings to LinkedIn at no cost. (If your organization isn't already using LinkedIn, start by creating an organization profile page and ask your current board members to list their board service in the "volunteer experience" section of their personal profiles.) Nonprofits can also use the LinkedIn platform to post a board position and to search for professionals who have indicated an interest in "board service.” Dubious about how many folks actually check that box? A recent search for people in the greater Los Angeles area who indicated an interest in board service in their LinkedIn profile yielded 95,871 results. Of course, like all search technology, you have to filter your results to find the best candidates.
5. Fish Where There Are Fish. It's one of those annoyingly obvious dating clichés, but if you're trying to find love, you have to go where single people hang out. In the search for new board members, nonprofits have to go beyond their regular circles and reach out to people in the community with different backgrounds, skills, and perspectives that could be valuable to the organization. In our experience, Chambers of Commerce, local leadership programs, young professionals groups, and alumni associations are all excellent places to meet individuals with an interest in seeing their community thrive and a desire to give back.
6. Lean on Your Cupid. Sometimes we all need a little help finding romance. For nonprofits, one way to broaden your pool of board candidates is to use the "blue ribbon nominating committee" idea that Jan Masaoka came up with and brilliantly explained in her classic Blue Avocado article. The essence of the strategy is to bring together influential people who are NOT candidates for your board and ask them to introduce you to people who MIGHT be candidates for your board. Another approach is to participate in board match programs through one of your local leadership programs.
We're here to help too: at Envision Consulting, we recently rebranded our longstanding board matchmaking mixers as CauseCupid, relaxed events that introduce nonprofits to professionals interested in board service. We also host dedicated "cupid events" for organizations seeking to substantially build their boards and companies interested in leadership opportunities for their employees.
We hope to see you at an upcoming event. And if we don't, good luck in your hunt for active, experienced, and passionate board members! May your efforts result in many beautiful friendships — and a minimum of swipe lefts.
Suzanne Elliott, a principal at Envision Consulting, specializes in organizational strategy, board development, succession planning, and group facilitation.