This is (supposed to be) Serious Business

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been subjected to this type of nonprofit board recruitment conversation:

“Hey, L. I’m on the board of XYZ Organization and I’d really love it if you’d consider joining. There’s no real work to do, just show up at a few meetings. No, really, you don’t have to do anything…oh, but their events are really fun! Shall I tell them you’re interested?”

Umm….how about NO. Sounds like a total waste of time to me. And if this is how your organization approaches board member recruitment, please step into my office because we need to talk.

Don’t Sell Your Organization Short….The Board is There to Work 

A nonprofit board of directors is the most important group of volunteers an organization has. The board of directors is the governing body. The board is ethically, fiscally, and legally responsible for everything the organization does. Equally importantly, this group plays an integral role in creating and nurturing organizational culture – and this can be either positive or negative. 

While board members are not typically involved in running the day-to-day operations, they are responsible for setting policy, hiring & managing paid executive staff, and overseeing the organization’s finances. Board members should also be the most vocal advocates for the nonprofit they represent, working to bring increased visibility to the organization’s programs and services and expanded funding opportunities to sustain the work. 

How is it possible that all of this responsibility can be condensed into “just showing up at a few meetings”?? How can these important duties be dismissed as “not having to do anything”?? I don’t know…but it happens all the time. 

A functional and cohesive board can be the lifeblood of a successful organization. But a board that is not fully aligned and committed to the very real work that comes with running a nonprofit business can cause significant issues for the organization’s health. These issues can include negative community reputations, reduced funding opportunities, and even a loss of the nonprofit status in the most egregious of cases. 

So, what are some best practices when it comes to building a strong board of directors? Here’s a few of my tried and true strategies:

Always remember, a nonprofit is a business. Every nonprofit is born out of a passion to do good. But, if everyone is busy building and expanding services and programs, who is keeping an eye on the business? A nonprofit board should be recruited based, at least in part, on the business expertise that is required to run a successful nonprofit organization. Sure, we all want our board members to participate in our events and help implement our programs, but their first and most important duty is ensuring a healthy business. 

Let your bylaws be your guide. Every nonprofit should be governed according to its bylaws, and this includes the recruitment and service of its board. When recruiting board members, it is important to have a clear understanding of what your bylaws say in terms of the board’s size and composition, board members’ terms of service, and any other rules governing how the board manages itself and the organization. Following your bylaws is not only a good business practice, it can also help lead the organization through tricky governance issues that arise from time to time. 

This is not a place for all your friends. Too many nonprofit organizations rely on the personal networks of existing board members to recruit new board members. What tends to happen in these cases is that the board becomes homogeneous, both in terms of representation and culture, and this is never good for the longevity of an organization. While it is perfectly fine to recruit from board members’ personal networks, this should not be the primary mode of identifying the people who will govern the organization. More important is identifying the right people, which should be done in accordance with the mission, goals, and business needs of the organization. 

Always remember your mission. In addition to recruiting according to the business needs of the organization, it is also imperative to have board members who wholeheartedly support and believe in the mission. It is not enough to identify people with great connections or deep pockets, it is much more important to recruit board members who believe in what the organization is working to accomplish. It is only through this mission connectivity that you will get the most out of your board members in terms of commitment, participation and advocacy.

Clear expectations should lead the way. If you do not have a board member job description, get one in a hurry. Board members should come to your organization with a clear understanding of their role, duties, and what is expected of them. Does your organization have a board member giving requirement? Do you want board members to perform volunteer work in addition to attending board meetings? Be clear and up front with expectations so your board members join the organization with a full picture of what they will be responsible for. 

The worst thing you can do as a nonprofit leader is diminish the important role of your board of directors. And the next worst thing is having existing board members who fail to understand or embrace their fiduciary and legal responsibilities to the organization. Remember: This is (supposed to be) serious business. Treat it accordingly.