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Four Questions You’re Probably Not Asking Before Beginning Board Recruitment

In recent months, our clients’ top questions have been about board recruitment. Nonprofits with a heightened awareness of racial injustice and systemic inequities are looking to board recruitment as an area where they can take immediate action. But before recruiting new members, board leaders need to ask themselves some tough questions about their readiness to not only recruit but support leadership development in service to the organization and community.   

In this blog post, we share recent guidance we’ve been giving to folks, and a special free resource that we usually reserve just for clients. Read on if you don’t want to miss out!

Do you have absolute clarity about board service? 

Our team has worked with hundreds of nonprofit boards, and a top concern we hear is that board members “don’t do what they are supposed to do.” When we probe deeper, it becomes clear that board members are unsure about their roles and responsibilities, and they aren’t held accountable to them. While nonprofit boards all have some common fiduciary duties, ultimately your nonprofit board must set its own roles, norms, and culture. Too often, new board members are expected to guess what it means to be a board member of your nonprofit, and that’s not fair to them.

Our Tip: Every board should have the following documents ready for recruitment: 

  • A one-pager about your nonprofit to circulate among prospective board members;
  • A job description with clear roles and responsibilities;
  • A Board Member Agreement that outlines expectations, signed at the start of their term.

Bonus! We think a Member Agreement is so important that we’re offering a free sample of the template we share exclusively with clients. We hope it gets you that much closer to jumpstarting new member engagement!  


Are there subtle barriers to board service? 

Aside from fiduciary duties and compliance, many board practices are optional or inherited from previous board experiences. Attracting the type of people you need  requires a refresh. Here are a few ideas to consider adopting, or revisit in your existing practices: 

  • How are you building trust? Groups make better decisions when there are trusting relationships. An annual board calendar should include space to connect outside the boardroom, such as a board retreat and informal gatherings. Consider a “Board Buddies” system that connects current and new members.
  • Are minimum board donations a deterrent? If you are trying to increase community representation, an inflexible give/get policy might be a barrier to entry. It’s important to remember that a person’s value goes beyond a checkbook. We love to see a board set a collective board give/get goal, so that everyone can contribute based on their personal situation.
  • Review your meeting times, location, and frequencies. We had an early childhood development client that held monthly meetings downtown on Tuesday at 6 PM sharp — not ideal for the many board members who were parents. Just because the meeting has always been at a certain time, in a certain place, and for a certain length doesn’t mean that it has to be like that forever. Consider the people you are trying to reach, and what works best for them.

What issues are you trying to address with new board members? 

Here’s a good prompt for your next board meeting: On a scale of 1 to 5, how close is the board we have today to the board we need for the future? Breakout into small groups to discuss what you need and why. These might include new skills, community representation, demographics, willingness to step into leadership roles, etc. Your organization might be approaching a big milestone that needs special event experience, a leadership transition where HR expertise would be helpful, it’s first audit. Be thoughtful about where your organization is. From there, the Governance Committee might use a board matrix to assess the current composition, identify gaps, and highlight key areas the recruitment strategy needs to address. 

Our Tip: If the issues are individual — chronic absenteeism, rudeness toward staff, lack of engagement — the Governance Chair and Board Chair need to create a “Bless and Release” plan that reviews term limits and tees up exit conversations. A bad apple spoils the lot, and new board members observing bad behavior won’t know what is acceptable and what is not.

Does your recruitment strategy align with your nonprofit’s racial equity journey? 

It is common for a board and staff to be at different stages in their learning journeys around racial equity. Therefore, a board’s interest in attracting racially diverse board candidates should not happen apart from the rest of the organization. First and foremost, the board should be aware of DEI frameworks, plans, actions, new language, etc. occuring at the organization-level. Board training on racial diversity and implicit bias is a good first step to take before recruitment strategies are set and prospective candidates are evaluated. To avoid tokenism — a symbolic effort to include minority groups for appearance’s sake — board recruitment should be part of an organization-wide effort towards racial equity.  

Our Tip: Be honest! If your nonprofit board is mostly or entirely white, be candid with BIPOC candidates about the issue and outline specific actions you are taking to become more inclusive and why it is important (see #3). That said, your pitch to them should be about the myriad value they add to the organization beyond racial identity. In this article, Recruiting for Diversity — Without Disrespecting People of Color, Jim Taylor, BoardSource’s VP of Leadership Initiatives, shares experiences he’s had as a Black man recruited for board service.

These four questions are unlikely to be answered in one committee meeting, or a single agenda item at your next Board meeting. That is why we encourage Boards to have an evergreen/year-round recruitment strategy. You don’t have to wait until someone announces their departure, or a term limit expires, to begin recruitment! When recruitment becomes a shared and ongoing responsibility, board members can review the questions and answers periodically, update needs accordingly, and pursue the right candidates organically.

Free Board Member Agreement

Every board should have a board member agreement ready before beginning their recruitment. Download this free resource to jumpstart your engagement.

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