New year, new board members – at least, we know many of you are hoping that is what the new year will bring! In light of that, this month Nonprofit Notes asked four of our contributing authors to share an idea to inspire better board recruiting. In the sections below you’ll find ideas about how to make your board recruits feel valued, connected, and excited to join your board team. Those of you who are interested in this topic may also want to check out this case study from a previous issue, which lays out a step-by-step plan for recruiting board members.

One last thing: when I was writing the titles of these sections, it suddenly occurred to me they could just as easily be the headlines in a how-to article about dating: “Tell them why you want them”; “Treat them right”; “Focus on the fun parts”; “Always be learning and growing”. Board recruitment tips doubling as relationship advice? Funny, but in a weird way, it makes sense, since board recruitment really is all about developing closer relationships with people who are passionate (see what I did there?) about your organization. Good luck! – Emily


Tell Them Why You Want Them
By Jennifer Weber, M. Ed., CFRE

One of the most important, but often overlooked steps in board recruitment is to clearly express to a prospective board member WHY you want THEM on your board. A prospective board member may be thinking, “Why me?” It’s an important question that you must answer pro-actively with honesty, clarity, and enthusiasm! When you sit down with a prospective board member, don’t be shy about saying why you want them on your board. Make it clear what you see in them and how they can add value. Let them know what unique gifts, talents, experience, wisdom, networks, influence, background, or skills they bring that you need on your board.  Be specific so that the person you’re recruiting feels truly seen and appreciated for who they are. Sometimes, the special gift they bring might be their calm communication style or their ability to listen and hear different points of view. For someone else, it might be the power of their influence, network, and credibility in the community or for their gift of bold vision and action. Whatever it is, be clear about why you’re seeking their leadership on the board. In doing so, you are not only answering the “Why Me” question, but you’re also setting expectations for what you need them to bring to the table. By clearly expressing why their presence matters up front, you are setting the stage for authentic conversations down the line and set the tone for positive board culture and effective leadership.


Treat Them Right
By Dani Beam

I once had someone tell me that how someone treats you at the beginning of a relationship is a good indicator of how they will treat you throughout your time together.  I had another individual once say that “people like knowing what’s about to happen to them.”  In the case of board recruitment, I think both truisms apply.

First, remember that while you’re evaluating whether or not someone will be a good board member, that person is likewise discerning if your organization is worth her time, expertise and financial resources.  How you treat a potential board member during the recruitment process paints a picture of your organization and sets the tone for your future work together.  Are you organized, conscientious and relationship-oriented during your early conversations with a potential board member? Or could you be coming off harried, last minute or desperate?  Having a good process in place, with multiple points of engagement and conversation with the prospect along the way, will indicate that you are a professional organization that has its act together and deserves only the best from board members.

Speaking of the process leads me to my second point.  I recommend you provide a written timeline with the necessary steps and key dates for board recruitment.  Because people like to know what’s happening to them, it’s helpful to give a prospect a clear guide to what happens next.  This is especially important if the process evolves over many months. It’s easy to forget that while you’re knee deep in your internal process, the candidate is on the outside, not witness to all your activities. I recommend that you stay in touch regularly with the prospect throughout the process so that they know you haven’t forgotten about them.

And for goodness’ sake, don’t over promise!  I once had an Executive Director tell me that there’d be no obstacles for me to join her board.  I began making time in my schedule to attend meetings, planning how I could help them with their fundraising and budgeting for how I could support them financially.  All to find out several months later that I wasn’t selected after all.  So, don’t paint too rosy of a picture.  Instead, talk frankly about what a potential board member could bring to the table, as well as what might prevent him or her from being selected.  Some of those obstacles or issues could be addressed ahead of time, leading to better outcomes for everyone.

How you show up during the recruitment process provides a candidate with information about whether or not yours is an organization worth joining. It also sets the tone for future interactions. Treating the candidate well by providing timely, thorough and transparent communication about your process reassures that candidate and keeps them engaged.


Focus on the Fun Parts!
By Emily Anthony

I’ve been on a lot of boards over the years, and I’ve learned there are many things I love about board work: being part of a committed team of people I respect, getting to think deeply about meaty strategic questions, and seeing how our efforts over time have a real impact.  There are also some things I don’t love so much about board work, such as reviewing the treasurer’s report, or trying to remember how the heck Robert’s Rules of Order are supposed to work. But I’m happy to put up with those minor annoyances to get the bigger payoffs I mentioned first, especially when I care about the mission and have relationships with all the people at the table.

All of that is why I get a bit concerned when people tell me that the first step in their recruiting process is inviting potential board members to come to observe a board meeting.  It seems to make sense: you want someone to join your board, you tell them to come to check out your meeting.  But in reality, your board meeting may highlight some of those more mundane aspects of being on a board, without providing the observer with much of an opportunity to experience what I would say are the “fun parts” of board work: the great feelings that come from being part of a group that you know is doing important work and making a difference.  The poor newbie may not know more than a couple of people in the room, almost certainly won’t be able to follow all of the discussion, and if they happen to show up at the meeting where you are reviewing the annual audit . . . you may never see your recruit again! I’m kidding, but my point is that unless the board meeting you are observing is as awesome as the one Sara Lawson chairs (see her section below!), I think that observing a board meeting is as likely to make a potential board member feel awkward and uncertain as it is to make them feel engaged and motivated to join up.

So what to do? I’m not saying that you should never invite recruits to observe board meetings (although I also don’t believe it should be a requirement.) But do think carefully about if and when attending a board meeting should happen in the recruiting process. For people who don’t know your organization well, touring a program site or attending a donor engagement event like this are better ways to get excited about joining the board. Follow that up with a coffee with a couple of board members to learn about the recruit’s interests, and have the last step be observing a board meeting if you do it at all. At that point in the process, your recruit will already be inspired by your work and will be getting to know a few of the people on your team, who, by the way, should make a point of trying to make the newbie feel welcome.  By focusing on the “fun parts” of engaging with the mission and relationship building in your process, you will increase the chances your new board member will accept your offer of a position.


Always Be Learning and Growing
By Sara Lawson

I was asked to introduce myself recently by sharing one thing I’m passionate about. Even though I love my work, I immediately knew that I’d talk about my board role at Arts Corps. Some background: Arts Corps is a force for creativity and justice in a region where race is the greatest predictor of whether a young person has access to an arts education. We believe that creating art can be a personal act of liberation, and when done collectively can transform schools, neighborhoods, and beyond.

Arts Corps’ explicit commitment to racial and social justice AND to being an educational organization means that we need to live that out at the board table. As a board, we invest substantive time and energy educating ourselves, stretching our collective thinking, and examining how our commitments should shape our approach to budgeting, hiring, fundraising, board training, and beyond. The process is aspirational and imperfect, sometimes messy, and always thought-provoking. Opportunities to learn together are part of what makes board service meaningful, engaging, and effective. (And on a personal note, I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had to grow as a person, as a leader, and as an advocate through my involvement here.)

So what does all of this mean for board recruitment? When we meet with prospective board members, they are invariably excited to hear about our commitment to learning and about our board culture (which is caring, committed, fun, and deliberately seeks to welcome diverse perspectives and experiences). They are also interested in opportunities to engage in thought-provoking work and courageous conversations that have a strong social justice focus. I think that’s why we have so many great people interested in serving on this board; we often have more interest than vacancies.                    

So, the upshot: Create tangible, mission-relevant opportunities for board members to learn. Then tell board candidates what your board is learning about, why it’s important, and how it shapes your board work. The focus will be different for your organization, but if you aren’t able to address those topics, how engaged IS your board, and how effective can they be as advocates for your mission?