Tips for Effective Board Recruitment

One of the recurring challenges I hear time and time again from nonprofits with which I work is:  how do I effectively recruit the right board members?

This is an updated Tip Sheet from one I originally created in 2015, taking into account some lessons learned in the last half-dozen years.

It addresses two main questions: (1) who do you recruit, and (2) how do you recruit them?

The process should ideally be taken on by a nominations committee or a board governance committee, led by a board member and staffed by the Executive Director.  Occasionally, for very small boards, the board as a whole should take on the task.

Who do you recruit?

Step 1:   Be clear on what “type” of board you’re seeking.

  • Do you need a working board actively engaged in the management and program of the organization because you have little/no staff?
  • Do you need a governance board that helps with big-picture strategy and doesn’t do much else?
  • Do you need a finance/treasure board that plays a significant role raising and stewarding dollars?
  • Do you need some combination of the above?

Step 2:   Create a written statement of board responsibilities

  • Informed by Step 1, reach board consensus on what the overall responsibilities of all board members are, as well as any specific major responsibilities for the upcoming 18 months. Put them in writing.

Step 3:   Identify the attributes you’re seeking that matches the type of board?

  • Two attributes that should apply to all board recruits: time and passion for the mission.
  • Specific skills that would be helpful to your organization, such as law, finance/accounting, human resources, communications, nonprofits.
  • Representation (race, gender, geography, etc.).
  • Financial resources/Fundraising relationships and willingness to fundraise (if appropriate for your board type, which usually is the case to at least some extent)
  • Relationships with those that can help (funders, community leaders, business leaders, industry sectors, etc.) and the willingness to be your ambassador to them.

Step 4:   Use a matrix to identify what’s missing from your current board.

  • Create a spreadsheet listing what you’re seeking across the horizontal axis and the current board along the vertical axis.  Fill in what the current board provides.
  • Focus recruitment on the gaps, but bear in mind that for some skills/attributes, you may wish to always have redundancy (e.g. a treasurer role and someone who could step into that role if needed)

Step 5:   Create a prospect list and, if necessary, a finders list.

  • Brainstorm as a group people who the board/staff know who belong on the prospect list as someone who you think may be appropriate.  Don’t just do this off the top of your head.  Look at your list of major donors, key volunteers, etc. to inform your brainstorm.  In general, I recommend this list be 5 times the size of the number of board slots you hope to fill.
  • If you can’t think of enough prospects, create a secondary “finders” list.  These are people you know who wouldn’t be an appropriate ask (e.g. you know for sure they’re too busy), but who may know people who are appropriate.   Call them.  Ask them for advice/suggestions.
  • If you still don’t have enough prospects, I know of at least some organizations who’ve had success with a more public call for board members.  They’ve done this by advertising on email lists focused on boards and community volunteer opportunities or giving a call-out for board members as part of their own communications (email newsletter, social media).  If you go this route, you’ll want to have people fill out some form of application as a precursor to recruitment (see below).

How do you recruit them?

Step 1:  Vet the prospect list with your existing board

  • A subset of you may have handled the “who you recruit list” task  Before recruiting anyone, vet names with your board before initiating contact.  You may discover a board member knows somebody on the list and feels they’d make a bad board member. Or a fabulous one. You want to learn this before approaching them.

Step 2:   Meet with Prospects (including anyone referred to you by a finder or via an application).

  • There is no substitute for an in-person meeting to discuss board service. Zoom call would be second choice if geography or safety requires it.  Phone calls are a bad third choice.  Don’t even consider making this ask by email.  The best recruitment meetings involve both a board member and the Executive Director meeting with the prospect either together or in separate meetings.
  • Don’t ask prospects: “Will you meet with me to discuss board service.” Ask: “Will you meet with me to hear about what’s going on with NONPROFIT NAME so I can get your feedback and discuss whether you’d be an appropriate fit for becoming a volunteer leader or board member?”
  • Before meeting, clarify in your mind what you think the potential board member would get out of board service and emphasize that in the meeting (e.g. key role in advancing the mission, prestige, personal relationships with interesting people, stimulating meetings, etc.).
  • Use the written board responsibilities in the meeting and go over them with the prospect to make sure they understand them. Don’t understate the responsibilities.  This is especially true with fundraising responsibilities.  I’ve heard first-hand board members tell me that they were told orally during a meeting that they didn’t “really” have to fundraise even as the official responsibilities said they did.  
  • Make sure the prospect understands that you (e.g. those meeting with him/her) are not the final decision-maker. Rather, you’ll take the information back to the board (or better yet, a board Nominations Committee) to see if it’s a good fit taking into account competition with other people who are also being talked to about board service. Don’t be a desperate date. Most prospects will also want time to think about it after a meeting. 

Step 3:  Make recommendations/decisions

  • If the prospect wanted to think about it, call them back 1-2 weeks later and see what they decided.  
  • Once you’ve met with a few potential prospects, the set of folks making the recommendations/nominations should meet as a team and decide if you want to formally nominate/appoint any or all of those met.   If there are more potentially good board members then slots, figure out who to prioritize and come up with ideas for an alternative volunteer ask of those who the time isn’t right.  (This is a great reason to have at least some committees that include non-board members).  
  • Board nominations/recommendations should be made in writing to the board in advance of board elections.

Other Tips

  • While board recruitment is classically a board responsibility, not staff, an Executive Director should take on key parts of the process, if necessary, to drive it forward, particularly if it’s clear a larger board is necessary.
  • When doing meetings with current/potential major donors, Executive Directors should always be thinking at the same time about whether this person would make a good board prospect.  
  • Keep a master spreadsheet not just of current prospects (and finders), but also a record of who’s been asked and said no.
  • Good board recruitment happens every year. Even if you’re not expecting to need board members in the next year, setting things in motion to potentially add somebody in any given year is a best practice to avoid a shrinking board if you have unexpected departures.  
  • Make sure you have a good board orientation process and make your board meetings themselves effective and interesting. The more engaged board members are, the less turnover you’ll experience and the less you’ll need to do new recruitment.

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