Ask any nonprofit leader what their biggest challenge is, and you’ll hear an overwhelming majority of them tell you that filling their empty Board positions is a source of stress and angst.
They would love to find amazing new Board members who will contribute both their time and talent to help lead the nonprofit.
And they’d LOVE new Board members who help raise money!
For some reason, their efforts to find and recruit awesome new Board members have failed.
Why is that?
A lot of problems on a nonprofit Board can be traced back to a lackadaisical recruitment process.
There just wasn’t enough thought put into WHO needs to fill empty Board positions.
Nor was the Board member recruitment process given the time and attention it deserves.
Whether you are just starting out and need to fill brand new board positions, or you’ve been operating for years and need to replace a current Board member, I’ve got some good news for you!
There IS a way to make sure your Board positions are filled with qualified people who share your passion for the cause and who are willing to roll up their sleeves if needed.
Sounds exciting, right??
So, let’s get you started building a great nonprofit Board of Directors!
Before you start recruiting people to fill your empty Board positions, let’s back up and take the time to define what you need on your Board.
Here are some questions to get your wheels turning as you prepare to seek out new Board members.
- Does your organization need a working Board with hands-on members who are actively involved in fundraising, planning, and growth? Or are you building a governing Board who will work more with policy and high-level oversight?
- Is there a specific skill you need to add to your Board that you’re currently missing?
- Is there a specific position you need to fill, like a Fundraising Committee Chair, or are you just looking for general Board members?
- How many hours per week or month are you expecting your Board members to dedicate to your nonprofit?
- Is there a specific list of tasks that each Board member needs to perform during the next year?
- If you’ve been operating for a while, what about your Board of Directors hasn’t been meeting your needs, specifically?
- If you could have your dream Board of Directors, what would that look like?
Consider your answers to these questions and anything else that is important to you, and put together a list of what you really want and need to fill your Board positions.
Decide what things are non-negotiable, what are important but not necessary, and what are icing on the cake — things you’d love but aren’t crucial to the operations of your Board.
And remember – you’re not looking to make new best friends here or to fill your Board with people who will only agree with you.
Part of your Board’s basic roles and responsibilities is to ask questions and politely challenge your thinking.
How many Board positions do you need to fill?
Check your nonprofit’s bylaws to see what it says about the number of Board members you must have. It probably says something like “no less than 5 and no more than 10”.
Also, check any relevant government regulations. In the U.S., your state may have its own set of requirements that you need to meet, and the IRS requires every 501(c)(3) to have at least 3 Board members, including a President, a Secretary, and a Treasurer.
Speaking of the IRS…they also don’t allow more than 2 Board members to be related to one another, whether that relationship is a marriage or members of the same family. It’s really not a good idea for your Board to be all friends and family anyway.
Set the Stage
Before you start the search for people to fill your nonprofit Board positions, get your ducks in a row internally as an organization so that you can set your Board members (and you!) up for success.
You’ll need the following things before you start recruiting new Board members:
- Board Member Job Description. Treat the recruitment of Board members like you’re hiring staff. You wouldn’t hire someone without a job description, so create one for your Board members. These can be as detailed as you want them to be, and they should definitely be comprehensive. Remember to think about things like:
- Will your Board member be required to donate? (Hint: YES THEY SHOULD!). Having 100% Board giving is important to set the stage for other donors to give, and some grants require it.
- Will they be expected to recruit volunteers?
- Will you expect your Board members to attend and/or help plan fundraisers?
- What about making media appearances?
- How many hours per week or month will they need to give to accomplishing Board work?
- How often are Board meetings, and what is the attendance requirement (this should also be in your bylaws too)?
Include these things in your job description so that there is no confusion.
- 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 a nonprofit expects from its Board members and what the Board member can expect from the nonprofit.
Ask your Board members to sign this agreement every year to renew their commitment to their role. This simple act can prevent a lot of problems and chaos later! Think of it as an “employment contract” with your Board members.
- 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 needs that your nonprofit is filling, and the main programs your nonprofit offers. Don’t make it too long or wordy – less is more! Keep it simple, clean, and easy to read.
Ok, you’ve thought about what skills you need. You’ve prepared the documents you need for recruitment to avoid any surprises or misunderstandings.
Let the search begin!
But where do you even start?
Think about potential Board candidates in three categories: Hot, Warm, and Cold.
Sometimes, the best Board member prospects are people already in your circle:
- Professional colleagues
- Program/service recipients or their families
- Current donors
- In-kind supporters
These people are already connected to your nonprofit and are hot leads because they already know your organization and have a vested interest in seeing you succeed.
Start recruiting with hot leads because they are the people you have the BEST chance of getting. Their understanding of your mission and active support mean they already care, which likely means they’d make an active Board member.
If you’ve hit your hot lead list and still haven’t found a good fit, you can move on to warm leads.
Warm leads can include:
- Friends of friends/volunteers/current Board members
- Lapsed donors
- Former Board members
- Former volunteers
- Active social media followers
- Local Board bank (service-matching local professionals with local nonprofits who need Board members)
These are typically people who know about the work you do, recognize your name and your mission, and are generally service-oriented.
They may be people who want to serve on your Board because it bulks up their resume or reputation. And that’s okay, as long as they feel strongly about your cause and can truly support it.
The last resort should be cold leads, which are basically blind searches or posts “advertising” open positions on your Board.
- Posting on social media
- Emailing local politicians or influencers
- Listing your volunteer Board positions on VolunteerMatch or other general recruitment sites.
- Posting a flyer on the bulletin board at your local coffee shop, the grocery store, or anywhere else
You may get some interest, but chances are that you won’t get people who are invested in your cause.
In fact, you probably won’t know much of anything about these people, and that’s really dangerous for your nonprofit. Do you truly want an unknown person becoming a leader of your organization?
There are definitely exceptions to this rule, as a strongly worded and detailed posting can draw the right people. But as a rule, it’s best to start with hot or warm leads.
Tips for Recruitment
Learning how to recruit the perfect people to fill your nonprofit’s Board positions takes a little time, but with some practice you can get it right.
Here are some things to keep in mind in your search for the right Board members.
- You don’t just want warm bodies. You need people who will do the work.
- You don’t want to bring on someone simply because they have the time and desire. You NEED people with the skills your organization needs.
- Treat the entire recruitment process like a job interview. Take the time to carefully screen potential new Board members to make sure they’ll be a good fit. If you already have a Board and are simply adding new positions, any prospective new Board members should be interviewed by the Nominations or Governance Committee on your Board.
- Be honest, and don’t sugar coat the workload. You want to be transparent about what you need them to accomplish and how they can best support your nonprofit.
- Make sure your prospective Board member aligns with both your nonprofit’s brand and your Board’s culture. They don’t have to agree with everything or be just like everyone else, but they do need to fit.
- Your Board members should be comfortable talking about your cause, asking for support from friends, family, and the community, and they should be more than happy to work any connections they may have that can aid your nonprofit in fulfilling its mission. I’ve seen many instances of Board members who have many contacts, but they aren’t willing to invite those contacts to get involved.
- Don’t load your Board with “yes” people. Instead, surround yourself with people who have ideas and aren’t afraid to say “no” or offer constructive criticism in a healthy, professional way.
- Don’t choose someone just because they are loyal to you personally. They must still meet the criteria for being a good Board member.
- Make sure that anyone you consider has something valuable to bring to the table, and they are willing to bring it. It doesn’t matter if your new Board member has great name recognition, if they won’t use it for your nonprofit’s benefit.
Basically, what this all adds up to is that you need people who fit in with your culture, who CARE about your nonprofit, who are WILLING to lend their time and their names to your cause, who aren’t afraid to advocate and ask for support, and who possess the skills you need to keep your nonprofit moving forward.
If you’re desperate to fill a position with any willing warm body, you’re seriously setting yourself up for problems later.
Remember, your Board of Directors sets the foundation for your nonprofit.
A strong Board will help you avoid that infamous Founder’s Syndrome, where you end up doing it all. They are there to provide leadership, help strategize and execute plans, to support you, and to roll up their sleeves if needed.
Take the time to choose carefully, and you’ll be rewarded with less stress, more moral support, more ideas, and more balance in your life.
Can you imagine how good it would feel to look forward to your Board meetings? Or to walk away feeling supported and inspired?
It doesn’t have to be a fantasy. The perfect people to fill your nonprofit Board positions are probably already around you and would love to say “yes” to serving.