When organizations aren’t raising as much money as they need, they’ll often tell me: “We need to recruit new board members.” This is very often true, but it’s only a piece of the puzzle as to why they’re not being more successful with fundraising.
So if you’re about to embark on some board recruitment, I strongly encourage you to do a little soul-searching first so you can embark on your quest strategically.
Not all organizations are the same. In my humble opinion, the best boards are fundraising boards. You may have a self-described “community board” you’d like to evolve to a fundraising board. Or perhaps you have more than one board with different purposes (e.g., governance; foundation; advocacy), so your board can perhaps afford to be less engaged with fundraising.
For the purposes of this article I’m going to assume you’re like most nonprofits and, among other things, you need a board that is a fundraising engine.
This may mean you believe you need to recruit ‘rich people.’ Or already experienced fundraisers. And since you don’t know any of the above, you keep putting board recruitment and development on the back burner. Or you keep recruiting more folks exactly like the ones you already have. Alas, this won’t help you resolve your fundraising conundrum.
So, let’s begin someplace else. Before beginning recruitment of the WHO for your board, begin by reminding yourself of the WHY.
Why Do You Need Board Members?
Certain skill sets may come to mind first. Such as “we need a lawyer.” But this is only a piece of what you’re looking for, and it’s not the most important piece. You could recruit the most famous lawyer in your community, but if they refuse to use those skills on your behalf – or if the area where you need help is not their area of expertise — this is meaningless.
Begin by answering this question: What are the top three things we need accomplished by our board this year? Here are some items that may be on your list, depending on current priorities:
- Help with fundraising
- Help with marketing
- Help with legal issues
- Help with financial/audit/investment issues
- Help with strategic planning
- Help with facilities
- Help with personnel policies
- Help with outreach to a specific demographic
Once you have this list, consider whether you have the right current board members to help you accomplish these three things.
The Roles of Board Members
Board members have a dual-fisted leadership role: (1) governance; (2) financing.
Merely making policy and program decisions (governance), without working to assure funding is available to enact those approved strategies (financing), is what’s called an “unfunded mandate.” It won’t get you where you want to go.
Board members should also be active, not passive. Someone who makes a donation, but otherwise sits quietly in the corner, never speaks, and simple rubber stamps every board motion is not a “board member” in my book. They’re a donor. Conversely, someone who speaks up all the time at meetings, has tons of ideas (many of them resource-intensive), yet who fails to make more than a token donation (if that) is not a “board member” either. They’re an advisor. As leaders, board members should be both.
Make a List of Board Member Criteria
This is not just a vague ‘wish list.’ Be very thoughtful building this list. It’s best if done by a small group to begin, such as a board governance or nominating committee. Or maybe as a partnership between the executive director and board president. And it’s not a bad idea to add a savvy fundraiser to the mix, either on the board or senior staff level. Brainstorm your needs; then prioritize. Ask yourself what current skills, qualities and demographics comprise your board. Then consider what you may be missing. Generally you want people willing to be leaders, with:
- A range of diverse skills (e.g., finance, legal, planning, program, facilities, fundraising, marketing).
- Demographic diversity (e.g., age, gender, race, geography, and socioeconomic factors).
- Folks with connections they’re willing to use on your behalf, and a commitment to ensuring the organization is adequately financed.
- Folks willing to learn more about fundraising and how they can help.
- Folks willing to lead by walking the talk and making a passionate gift.
Once you know who you want and need, you can begin to look for candidates. Don’t simply put an ad in the newspaper or post a “board members needed” notice on social media or in your e-newsletter. What you don’t need are random ‘warm bodies.’ Here are some deliberate places to look:
1. Ask current board for nominations or recommendations.
Begin with a presentation at the board meeting describing the need for new board members. Depending on the size of your organization, this might be from the board president, executive director or the chair of the board governance or nominating committee. It’s important to get buy-in from existing members so they’re not resistant to the process. Sometimes small boards enjoy their intimate nature, and don’t really see a need to add. Change can be hard. Which is the reason discussing the WHY you need to recruit new members is a critical place to begin. If you anticipate hard resistance, consider hiring an experienced facilitator to help with the process. Once you have buy-in, call each board member individually to ask for their candidate ideas.
2. Ask staff for recommendations.
Any staff who work with donors will have a wealth of information about potential candidates. Development staff who meet one-to-one with supporters are probably your best resource. Volunteer coordinators are also great fonts of information. As are program staff who interact with parents, students, ticket buyers, members and even grateful patients.
3. Consider your donors.
These folks have already demonstrated commitment to your cause. What better way to honor and recognize this commitment than asking them if they’d like to consider becoming more involved? If they’re not interested personally, they may have some good suggestions. And even if they don’t, you’ve engaged in some excellent donor cultivation that can’t help but serve you well.
4. Consider your dedicated and active volunteers.
Like donors, these folks have already demonstrated commitment to your cause. Go through the process in #3 above.
5. Reach out to community leaders who care about your cause.
This is particularly wise if you’re looking to create a more diverse board. If everyone on your board travels in the same work and social circles, sticking with recommendations from them will only compound your problem. Trust me, I’ve worked with these kinds of boards as a fundraiser. The bad? When you try to broaden the donor base no one has any new or different suggestions because everyone knows the same people!
6. Contact local community organizations.
There are organizations that teach people to become effective board members, like volunteer centers and some United Way chapters or Jewish Federations. Some universities do this as well. Reach out to see if they may have a match for you.
7. Reach out to former board and staff leaders.
Again, these are folks who’ve already shown they care about your mission. They have a good idea what you’re looking for. This can be especially useful with leaders who are what Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point terms “connectors” and/or “mavens.” Such folks are constantly meeting new people, and may have some excellent new contacts to suggest.
8. Review board lists at organizations with shared values.
Many folks are on more than one board, so it doesn’t hurt to reach out. It’s advantageous to recruit someone who already knows the job requirements! Review board lists of other community organizations that make sense to you. If you’re a conservatory of music, look at who’s on the symphony or opera board. If you’re a homeless shelter, look at who’s on the broad-based human services organization’s board. If you’re a literacy organization, review the board lists of independent private schools or the public library. I would not recommend recruiting someone already serving on three boards or more, because you ultimately do want to encourage your board members to include you among their top three philanthropies during their term of service.
Vet Your Candidates with Care
Do not skip the step of vetting your candidates. This is super important! Board slots should not be given away lightly (e.g., to help folks pad their resumes). They are valuable positions and merit your due diligence. Whatever you do, do not allow one board or staff member to unilaterally invite someone to serve. This should be a group decision. And you should have a written vetting process in place. If you don’t, see this terrific board assessment tool from Joan Garry.
1. Begin with a phone call.
The goal here is to reassure yourself, and the candidate, that this is a good enough match it makes sense to move forward. This call is best made by the person recommending the candidate, but can also be made by a member of the nominating committee. If there’s interest on both sides, you’re ready to proceed.
2. Meet with your candidate one-to-one.
One or two members of the nominating committee should set up this meeting. Ideally it’s pretty informal, as you’re still in exploration mode. You want everyone to feel comfortable. But make no mistake: this is a job interview. So don’t make the rookie mistake of doing most of the talking in an effort to “sell” your organization. That’s backwards. Don’t sell until you know you have someone you want to sell to.
- Ask them about their interests in serving.
- Assess their passion for the cause.
- Ask what they know about your organization and why they’re interested in taking on this commitment.
- Ask them how they understand the role of a board member.
- Ask if they’ve had any experience with fundraising, and what their comfort level is in becoming more involved.
- Tell them what you expect of them.
- See if they’re up to the challenge.
If all goes well, you’re ready to do a little selling. Find out what they know about the organization, and see what questions they may have. But don’t sell so hard you shoot yourself in the foot! If you start out on the wrong foot, you’ll live there for the duration of this person’s board service. And that will be unpleasant for all involved. So be prepared to be honest about expectations. Don’t make these common mistakes: “Yes, we’re supposed to fundraise, but you won’t have to do much of that.” “Yes, we have six meetings a year, but you can miss most of them if they conflict with your schedule.” Guard against “butting” in.
Once all questions have been answered on both sides, now you’re ready to recommend their candidacy (or mutually agree it’s not a good fit right now).
3. Have a second meeting with a decision-maker.
If you’ve decided to move forward, it’s time for a more formal meeting. Generally either the executive director or board president or, ideally, both will want to meet with all recommended, vetted candidates. Similar questions will be asked of the candidate as in #2 above. At the end of the meeting, the “VIP” will let the candidate know whether their recommendation will be submitted to the full board.
4. Present the slate of board nominee recommendations to the board.
Make sure you write up a brief bio of all vetted, recommended nominees and submit this to the board in advance of the next board meeting. This is like presenting final job candidates to some of the staff with whom they’ll be working. It’s always a mistake to foist someone on a group by fiat, without inviting their input.
It’s Easy to Blame Board Members
It’s more difficult to take a look in the mirror and realize you’re the one at fault.
If you’re not setting your board members up for success through strategic recruitment, clear direction, training, coaching and cheerleading, you’ve got some work to do. Everyone needs to know the rules going in, or it will be next-to-impossible to play by the rules.
Take a step or two backwards and really clarify for yourself WHY you need board members.
Then you’ll be able to establish:
WHAT you want board members to help you accomplish
WHEN you need board members to step up to the plate
HOW board members can be most helpful moving your priority initiatives forward
WHO you need to recruit to effectively achieve your mission
WHERE you’re likely to find good board candidates
To your success!
Want to Learn More about Your Leadership’s Role in Fundraising?
Check out Leadership’s Role In Major Gift Development – A ‘To-Do’ And Checklist. I’m guessing you could raise more money if your leadership embraced their donor development role, right? This holds true not just for board leaders, but for staff leaders as well. A culture of philanthropy begins at the top!
“As a sector, we need to elevate the importance of fund development as a leadership issue, invest in a stronger talent pool, and strengthen the ability of nonprofits to develop the systems that enable fundraising success.”
— Jeanne Bell, CEO of CompassPoint, co-author of Underdeveloped
“Generally, a culture of philanthropy is one in which everyone—board, staff and CEO—has a part to play in raising resources for the organization. It’s about relationships, not just money. It’s as much about keeping donors as acquiring new ones and seeing them as having more than just money to bring to the table. And it’s a culture in which fund development is a valued and mission aligned component of everything the organization does.”
— Cynthia Gibson, author, Beyond Fundraising
Photo courtesy of Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash