For new, young, and small nonprofits, the Board of Directors provides leadership and governance for the organization.
They’re there to help grow the organization and fulfill the mission.
That means they need to get involved – serve on committee, open doors, and bring their skills to the table.
When it works, it’s great. You don’t feel like the Lone Ranger and things get done.
But when your Board members don’t do anything … well, it’s frustrating.
They’re supposed to be your partners after all – partners that share the load. Many hands make light work, right?
Unfortunately, many leaders make some big mistakes in trying to build their Board, and they wind up with a group of people who are only marginally committed to the nonprofit and don’t seem interested in helping.
If this sounds familiar, I’ve got good news. It doesn’t have to stay this way.
Whether your nonprofit is brand-new and you’re literally building your first Board or you’ve got a Board but it isn’t the one you want, you CAN change it and create the one you want.
You CAN find people to serve on your Board who care about your nonprofit’s mission and want to bring their time, talent, and treasure to the table.
It’s time to create a productive, Working Board.
What is a Working Board?
A Working Board is a Board that gets things done to help the nonprofit grow.
Members may serve on a committee or make connections with folks they know who can bring resources to help the organization.
They’re part of your team, and not serving a personal agenda, plus productive and it shows in how much your organization is growing.
When your nonprofit matures, your Board will switch to a Governing Board. There won’t be so much hands-on work for them to do, since operational activities will be covered by staff. So, the Board will be left to handle the work of policy, planning, financial management, and fundraising.
Most founders WISH they had a productive, working Board. Unfortunately, they’ve made some mistakes in identifying and recruiting Board members, and now they have a Useless Board – one where people don’t really do anything except take up space.
You know the Useless Board – it’s made up of people who don’t return your phone call or your email. They say they’ll come to the event, but they don’t show up. They won’t help find sponsors or auction items, don’t share your posts on Facebook, and haven’t even seen your nonprofit in action.
If you have a Useless Board, it’s time to ‘bless and release’ them so you can create something better.
About Your First Board
If you’re building your first Board, congrats! This is an exciting time!
It’s also a confusing time.
You’re faced with so many tasks, a ton of paperwork, and the need for funding. Now you have to pull people in to support your vision for the organization and help you bring it to fruition.
Don’t rush through the creation of your first Board. Take your time to make sure you get the people you want and need. It can be difficult to get rid of them once you’ve asked and they’ve said “yes.”
Your nonprofit’s first Board will set the foundation for organizational growth during the critical start-up years. So, you really want to get this right.
It’s easy to make mistakes when you’re building your Board. After all, you’ve probably never had any training in Board Building 101.
Here are some really common Board building mistakes:
Warm Body Syndrome. The biggest and most common mistake in building your Board is Warm Body Syndrome. This happens when leaders are desperate for people, usually because of some deadline to meet a minimum number of Board members. Instead of taking the time to get the RIGHT people on the Board, they go after ANYONE with a pulse.
Easy Entry.Another common mistake is to make it sound very easy to serve on the Board just to get the prospect to say “yes.” If you tell someone “you just have to attend a meeting once a month and if you need to miss, it’s fine.
Please say yes,” you’re setting the bar too low and you won’t be happy with the results.
Rushed or No Process. No one ever does good work when they’re in a hurry and it’s true for Board recruitment. Give yourself plenty of time to find and interview potential Board members so you know what you’re getting, and you can make sure the new person will fit into the culture you’re creating on your Board.
Now that you know what doesn’t work, let’s look at what DOES work for new, young, and small nonprofits building a productive, Working Board.
1. Identify needed skills. What skills, talents, and connections do you need on your Board to take your nonprofit to the next level of growth? Common ones include marketing, public relations, accounting/finance, legal, social services, business management, and of course, fundraising. Be strategic here and think about what you really need, then find people who care about your nonprofit’s work, have the skills you need, and are willing to serve.
2. Recruit close to home. Where do you find new Board members? Start in your inner circle and work your way out. That means consider current volunteers and donors. If none of them seem like good prospects, ask them if they know someone with the skillset you’re looking for. The most commonly overlooked source of Board members is your current donor base. Think about it: these folks are already investing financially in your nonprofit, which means they’re committed to your success. With the right skills and commitment, they might just make great Board members.
3. Set expectations. Give prospective Board members a job description detailing their roles & responsibilities, especially the fact that they’ll need to not only help raise money but make their own personal gift, too. Don’t have a Board member job description? Create one. It will make it clear to both you and your prospective Board member what you’re asking them to do. It’s much easier for them to be realistic about the time commitment when they see the scope of what they need to do.
4. Plug them in. Talk with Board member prospects about how exactly you want them to use their skills and connections to serve the nonprofit. Don’t expect them to figure this out themselves – they won’t. You know more about how a Board works than they do, so help them see where they can plug in to make a difference. Once they join your Board, you’ll need to keep them educated, inspired, and productive.
5. Keep it smallish at first. It’s easy to think that if you have lots of people, you’ll get lots more work done, right? Not in this case. More is not always better. Every Board has a culture and you want to build yours on purpose so that when new people join, they see how things work. Start small, create the culture you want, then add people slowly so you can keep everyone working productively. There’s a weird dynamic when a Board gets too big where everyone thinks someone else will get things done, so no one does anything. Start smallish and add people as you find the right people.
Take recruiting seriously, as if you were hiring an employee. You wouldn’t hire any random person for a job would you? Take your time and get it right if you want a Board that will truly move your nonprofit forward.
- Just your friends. You’ll have a group of bobbleheads who say “yes” to everything and don’t disagree with you (which isn’t healthy). I saw this happen in a small nonprofit many years ago and guess what? That organization folded soon after. It’s okay to have a friend or two on your Board, but it’s more important to have people who are committed to the mission, not just to your friendship.
- People who work at other nonprofits. It might seem like a good idea, but it’s not. You can build collaborations with other nonprofits without people serving on your Board. If your Board member works at another nonprofit, it can be difficult and maybe unethical for them to help raise money for both.
- People serving on lots of other Boards. Again, seems like a good idea, because they understand how Boards work, right? Not necessarily. Just because they have Board experience doesn’t mean it was good Board experience. Anyway, you want Board members who will give their time and attention to YOUR nonprofit, not split it amongst several.
- Too busy to serve. Busy people can get lots done, but it they’re really busy, they won’t have time to help YOU.
- Out of town a lot. This is a problem for a Working Board when you need all hands on deck and they’re out of town. An occasional absence is expected. Multiple absences start to create resentment among Board members and for founders, and that’s not productive.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line with recruiting Board members is to look for Affluence, Influence, and Expertise. You want people who have affluence and can give money, have influence and can bring other resources to the table, and have expertise that you need for the nonprofit to grow.