There are nonprofits that enjoy a celebrated status in their communities. Powerful people clamor to be on their boards, and they earn those seats with significant contributions and meaningful introductions. And then there are most nonprofits. Their boards work to attract qualified board candidates but often end up wondering whether they should make do with less.
What are these nonprofits to do? The good news is that it is possible to recruit board members whose commitment to your cause more than balances out their lack of connections or personal wealth.
Now, it doesn't hurt to have a few well-connected (and deep-pocketed) people on your board. But having too many can be a problem. Increasingly, nonprofits are looking to solve the challenge of board member engagement. They struggle with board members who don't do much beyond showing up for meetings, or who write a big check to the organization once a year and then drop out of sight. But when it comes to that long-term project or software integration the organization desperately needs, the one that requires board members willing to do research and outreach until the goal is met? Fuggedaboudit.
For a nonprofit to achieve big wins, it needs the kind of engagement that can only come from board members who are committed supporters of the cause. In other words, don't ignore the benefits of recruiting board members who — regardless of their wallet size — are passionate and energetic. When done well, board recruitment with an eye for passion and enthusiasm usually results in a board that follows through on its assignments, is willing to engage in robust discussion, and does everything in its power to strengthen the organization. Individual gifts often disappear when a board member's term is up. But the programs and internal systems shaped by engaged board members often continue long after they have left the board.
There are other benefits to prioritizing passion when recruiting board members. For one, board membership is a natural way for an organization to listen to and reflect the community or population it serves. And these days, it is essential that a nonprofit have at least a few board members who can speak directly to the needs and perspectives of the people most impacted by its work. If your area of focus is animal welfare, your board should include someone doing animal welfare work. If your focus is homelessness, you should try to find someone who has firsthand experience of or with it. If your organization supports individuals with a specific health condition, you need someone on the board who understands the unique challenges of the population with that condition. Besides being invaluable in terms of informing your organization's strategies and programs, board members from the communities and/or population you serve also tend to be powerful ambassadors for the work you do.
Okay, so you've done an assessment of the kind of people, in terms of skills and experiences, you still need on your board. How do you find these rockstar board members? Start by asking your most active and committed volunteers. Odds are they know exactly who in the community already supports and is committed to your work. If you have a young professionals board or other non-board member committee, ask them. People who are already giving their time and talent to your organization are more likely to be engaged board members than those who don't. By recruiting from those already on the frontlines of your work, you have a better chance of identifying board candidates who truly care about your success and will go the extra distance to help you achieve it.
In the short term, it's great to have board members able to write a nice check and willing to invite a group of friends to do the same once or twice a year. But in many ways, the better board member is the one willing to do the difficult work of positioning your nonprofit as a trusted resource for and friend of the community. Finding those people isn't always easy, so be careful not to fall into the trap of putting "butts in the seats." You'll be much better off having ten engaged, committed, active board members than twenty warm bodies.
Cultivating a strong, engaged board is a never-ending process for a nonprofit. Bit it doesn't always have to be a competition for the wealthiest or best-connected people in your community. By carefully considering candidates' talents and enthusiasm for your cause and keeping an open mind, a well-balanced and committed board is within any nonprofit's reach.
Jeb Banner is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a nonprofit board management software provider, as well as two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree. He also serves as a board member of United Way of Central Indiana and ProAct Indy.