Building your first nonprofit Board is both fun and challenging.
It’s a huge opportunity to pull in people who can help you launch your dream and fulfill your nonprofit’s purpose.
For some people, it’s the first time they ask for help, which can be a bit unnerving and make the process challenging.
The big question is how do you find the right people?
And what exactly are you asking them to do?
Your first nonprofit Board not only gives you the names you need to put on the paperwork when you form your nonprofit, but it gives you the moral support you need to get your nonprofit started.
Let’s look at the role of your nonprofit’s first Board.
The role of your first nonprofit Board
Your nonprofit’s first Board should be a working Board, meaning your Board members need to be prepared to spend time working on behalf of the organization.
The Board of any nonprofit has some very specific roles and responsibilities, and your Board is no different. Your first Board needs to help with:
- Securing funding (raising money, planning fundraisers, etc.)
- Recruiting volunteers and program participants
- Serving as volunteers to get the work done until other volunteers are in place
One of the tricky parts of a Board member serving as a volunteer is that the roles and authority are different.
Board members must remember that when they’re serving as a volunteer, they have to take off their Board hat and put on a volunteer hat. In practical terms, that means they can’t act as a Board member and volunteer at the same time. While serving as a volunteer on the front lines of the nonprofit, they can’t make Board-level decisions, particularly around spending money.
Whether Board members are volunteering on the front lines of the organization or not, they must be willing to put in the time or the nonprofit will grow slowly, with the Founder shouldering the load.
For best results, get clear about the amount of time you expect a Board member to spend each month in Board meetings, committee meetings, fundraising, etc., and share this during the recruitment process. A clear expectation about the time commitment will help a prospective Board member make an informed decision about joining your Board and prevent problems later.
Your first nonprofit Board members
On your first Board, you need people with an entrepreneurial mindset to help generate ideas, think outside the box, network to meet new supporters, and tons more. They must work together for the greater good of the nonprofit and its growth.
In short, you need people who care about your nonprofit’s mission and are willing to give their time to help you get it off the ground.
As you think about who you want to ask to serve on your first Board, don’t go for anyone with a pulse (also known as Warm Body Syndrome).
If you’re desperate to get ANYONE who will say “yes,” you’re setting yourself up for problems later. Instead, go for people with
- Skills you need to grow to the next level. Think about marketing, accounting, strategic thinking and planning, etc.
- Connections to people who can be helpful as you grow, donating time, resources, and more connections.
- Commitment to helping the nonprofit grow through the first stage of its life (the Startup Phase).
Make sure that everyone you invite to sit on your first nonprofit Board has something valuable to bring to the table and they are willing to bring it. I’ve seen many instances of Board members who have many contacts, but they aren’t willing to invite those contacts to get involved.
It doesn’t matter if your new Board member has great name recognition if they won’t use it for your nonprofit’s benefit.
Your first Board’s size
How many board members do you need?
The answer depends on a couple of things:
- First, see if your state has a required number of Board members. If so, comply with that number.
- The IRS recommends at least 3 and they frown upon all or most Board members from the same family.
- Your nonprofit’s bylaws may designate the number of Board members you need, along the lines of “No fewer than 5 and no more than 15.”
It’s best to have an odd number of Board members to avoid tie votes.
Many nonprofits find that fewer than 5 Board members doesn’t give you enough people to get things done and more than 12 creates a weird dynamic where everyone thinks someone else will do stuff so no one raises their hand to get tasks done.
I’ve been part of nonprofits with as few as 7 Board members and as many as 75. In my experience, 10-12 of the right people who are committed to the nonprofit’s mission is a good-sized group.
As you build your Board, you’ll get a feel for the ideal number of members for your organization.
Board member recruitment materials
Before you ask someone to join your Board, there are a few things you need.
And it’s important to have these in writing so there’s no confusion about what you’re asking someone to do.
- Board Member Job Description. Treat the recruitment of Board members like hiring staff. You wouldn’t hire someone without a job description, so create one for your Board members. To make this easier, I’ve included a sample Board member job description at the end of this article. You’re welcome.
- Expectations Agreement. This is different from the job description. Where the job description outlines WHAT the Board member will do, the Expectations Agreement defines what the organization expects from its Board members and what the Board member can expect from the organization.
- Organizational Fact Sheet. A one-page document with the main facts about your nonprofit can be an excellent tool in recruiting new Board members. It can also be an educational piece for the community and a good addition to grant and sponsorship proposals later on. Include things like your mission, the need to be addressed by your nonprofit’s services, your anticipated service area, and the main programs your nonprofit will offer. Don’t stuff too much text on the page – less is definitely more in promotional pieces.
Once you have your Board member recruitment materials ready, it’s time to start looking for those all-important Board member prospects.
Where to look for Board member prospects
People will say “yes” to serving on your first nonprofit Board because they care about the cause or they care about you.
Don’t underestimate the strength of relationships you have with those around you! In fact, your friends and family are the best initial prospects.
Keep in mind that you don’t want to load your Board with people who will say “yes” to every idea you come up with. Instead, surround yourself with people who have ideas and aren’t afraid to say “no” or offer constructive criticism.
You also don’t want to choose someone just because they are loyal to you or believe in your cause. They must still meet the criteria for being a good Board member.
Use this list to get you started looking for people who may be interested in serving on your Board.
- Close or distant family members. Siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins can make great Board members. Choose carefully and ask only 1 or 2 so family members are a minority of your Board.
- Circle of friends. Childhood friends, former co-workers, and friends from clubs, churches, or sports teams can make good Board members.
- Current volunteers/supporters. Consider those who have already committed to volunteering for your cause. When people are willing to invest their time as a volunteer, they might make a good Board member, too.
- People with a vested interest. Think about those who will use your nonprofit’s services or their friends and family members. Sometimes people with a vested interest can make good Board members.
- Local Board bank. Check and see if your community has a Board bank. Your local United Way or Center for Nonprofits may have a program where they match community professionals who are interested in serving on a Board with nonprofits who are looking to fill Board seats.
Process for recruiting Board member prospects
Recruiting good Board members for small nonprofit organizations is easier when you take your time and do it right, following a proven process.
First, give yourself plenty of time to recruit Board members. Don’t try to rush the process just to fill Board seats. It’s better to take 6-12 months to fill your Board with the RIGHT people than to rush through it and get a bunch of ineffective, uncommitted people who will drive you crazy.
Here’s the process I personally use when I’m recruiting members for a Board. I take between 3 and 6 months to adequately work through the process.
1. Start by making a list of prospective Board members. Include 2 to 3 times the number of names you’ll need, because not everyone will say “yes.” Rank them in order of priority with the one you want most at the top of the list. If you already have a person or two on your Board, include them in the brainstorming.
2. Begin a conversation with the first person on the list with either a phone call or an in-person meeting. Don’t have this conversation via email! Ask them “Would you be interested in talking about the possibility of joining the Board for my new nonprofit that is going to [whatever your mission is]? Notice that you don’t outright ask them to join the Board. You invite them to talk about the POSSIBILITY of joining your Board. This is an important difference.
3. If the potential Board member is interested, provide them with the Board Member Job Description, the Expectations Agreement and the Fact Sheet, and set up a time to talk further (think of it as an interview). If they say “no,” thank them and move on to the next person on your list.
4. In the next meeting (or interview), go over the materials you provided and discuss the roles and responsibilities of a Board member. Remember that most people you’ll talk to have never served on a nonprofit Board and won’t really understand what they’re considering unless you explain it. During your conversation, try to uncover any issues that the prospect may have that may prevent them from being a good Board member (they’re already overcommitted, they serve on other Boards, they have a new baby, etc.).
5. After the interview, make notes of what the prospective Board member said that indicate they may or may not be a good fit for your first nonprofit Board. If you’re leaning toward inviting them to join your Board, sleep on it before you make the invitation. If you already have a person or two on your Board, ask them what they think of inviting the new candidate to join the Board. Do a Google search just to see what you can find out about them. This little bit of due diligence can help you avoid a ‘gotcha’ later.
6. If you feel good about the prospect, call and invite them to join your Board. If they say “yes,” tell them what the next steps are (when the first/next meeting is, anything they need to sign, when orientation is, etc.). Follow up your phone call with an email outlining what you told them on the phone (having things in writing is always a good idea!).
7. Repeat this process until you work through all the names on your prospect list.
See why this takes some time? Again, it’s better to take the time you need and get it right rather than rush through the process just so you can fill your Board.
New Board member orientation
Once you’ve gone through the process of recruiting fantastic new Board members, get them started on the right foot with a good orientation of your new nonprofit.
Give them all the pertinent information they need to do their job (copy of your bylaws, strategic plan, budget, etc.) and consider putting it into a notebook that they can access easily.
Remember that they’ll be trying to absorb a lot all at once so having things in writing will make it easier for them to follow along during orientation and it gives them something to refer back to later.
If your recruitment process looks like it will take quite a while, hold a new Board member orientation multiple times so you can get new Board members up-to-speed as quickly as possible after they’ve said “yes” to joining your Board. You don’t want to make someone wait 6 months or more for an orientation because their enthusiasm may fade. You may have to do orientation for Board members one person at a time and that’s okay. You’ll be able to answer their specific questions and help them see where they can plug in to be most effective for your new nonprofit.
Your first nonprofit Board meeting
Once you have at least a few new Board members recruited, it’s time to start meeting.
So, what kind of business needs to be conducted at your Board’s first meeting?
You’ll want to handle things like
Electing Board officers. If you’re going to personally fill the role of Board Chair (or President), that’s fine. You still need a Vice President that can maybe step into the President’s role later on. You’ll also need a Secretary to take minutes and a Treasurer to help you keep up with the financials.
Establish ongoing meeting date/time/place. It’s helpful to get the Board’s input into the meeting days/times so that it fits everyone’s calendars. It’s best to plan on monthly meetings because you’re going to have lots that the Board needs to work on in the first few years. Go ahead and set the meetings for the coming 12 months so everyone can get them on their calendar well ahead of time.
Divide up duties. Talk about your vision for your nonprofit for the next 6-12 months and tasks that the Board can help with, then let them choose how best to help. If possible, keep them focused on things like fundraising, raising awareness, and marketing for your programs.
What Board members want from their experience
Keep in mind that there are some very specific things that people want from their Board experience. Be ready to give them these to keep them satisfied and happy.
What people want from their Board experience:
- To use/share their skills and knowledge
- To help in meaningful ways
- To be guided
- To be supported
- To change or save lives
- To feel appreciated
- To trust the staff and the organization’s processes
- To know what to expect and what is expected of them
A Board member who feels engaged and satisfied will bring even more of their time, talent, and treasure to the table. And that will help propel your new nonprofit forward even faster!
Tips for building your Board
Be ready to provide direction. Just because someone says “yes” to serving on your Board doesn’t mean they know what to do. They’re all looking to YOU for direction. You’re the founder after all and the one with the plan for where the nonprofit is going. So, be ready to provide direction until your nonprofit gets a few years under its belt and Board members start to take ownership.
Not everyone will be good at everything. Out of a group of 10 Board members, you’ll have a diverse set of skills, abilities, and experiences – and that’s a good thing. The downside is that not everyone will be good at everything, so resist the urge to ask all Board members to do the same thing. For example, if you ask your whole Board to each recruit a sponsor for your upcoming event, you’ll be disappointed in the results. Focus on those who ARE good at whatever you need done and ask them individually. You’ll get better results.
Engagement is a work in progress. Keep your eye on participation for every individual Board member. Depending on their commitment level, people may or may not keep themselves engaged. If you see meeting attendance becoming a problem or if Board members aren’t keeping their word about getting tasks done, it might be time for some re-engagement. A 1-on-1 conversation about what they’d most like to do can be very productive.
The Bottom Line
Your first nonprofit Board is critical to the growth and success of your new organization. Board members will provide leadership and extra hands to get things done.
Take the time to create the Board you want instead of just getting anyone who will say “yes” and you’ll have a Board that will help lead your fledgling nonprofit to big success.