Recruiting, Retaining the Right Board Members
Board members expand the resources of a nonprofit and bring expertise to an organization that it might not otherwise have ... but only if the board member is right for that board.
The February 18, 2010, Governance Matters Roundtable focused on recruiting the right board members and retaining them once they are on board. The topic was discussed from two points of view: the board member who wants to join a board and the executive director looking for a new board member.
The conclusion from both sides was: transparency is key, candor is critical.
For Would-be Board Members
Those aspiring to join the board of a nonprofit must understand that board membership entails work, time, and money. Understand that you will have a fiduciary responsibility to the organization -- a responsibility to actively govern as well as a financial commitment. Writing a check is not enough; showing up at board meetings is not enough: You have to care.
Being on a board means an ongoing, lasting commitment to a cause:
- Make sure it's a cause you really care about.
- Decide whether you want to be part of a marquee organization or work with a smaller organization (a big fish in small pond or a small fish in a big pond).
- Ask questions about the mission and strategy of the nonprofit.
- Review the financial statements of the nonprofit.
- Review public information (press reports, etc.) to make sure the organization is reputable.
- Determine if the fundamentals of good governance are in place. You want to be on a board that is operating legally and conscientiously. Is the board engaged? Do all the members attend meetings regularly? Do all contribute financially?
- Meet with the board chair and other board members.
- Know yourself. Will you be happy with anecdotal or qualitative measures of outcomes or do you like solid metrics and quantitative measurements? Does the organization have what you want?
- Be willing to learn. Those paying for the work of a nonprofit, and those governing it, often have very little understanding of the lives of those using its services.
Make sure you can enthusiastically adopt the culture of the organization, including the way meetings are run and the expectations the organization has of you. For example, sometimes former clients of a social service agency are members of the board. Those members will not be expected to give as much money as wealthier board members. Do you mind giving 100 times more than others around the table? If so, it isn't the place for you.
Don't join the board of a nonprofit unless you really feel that what you are giving time, money, expertise is less than what you are getting.
For Board Chairs and Executive Directors
Be patient! The first and even the second or third potential board member you have lunch with may not be a fit. Take the time to get the right person. Be on the look-out for the candidate who has taken all the steps mentioned above. That's what you want: an engaged, candid, committed person.
- Be prepared to answer questions; in fact, it's a bad sign if the aspiring board member doesn't ask questions. Is he really interested in your mission and your organization?
- Ask questions yourself. Does this person understand the fiduciary responsibility of nonprofit boards? How about the time commitment? Be clear about the expected "give/get."
- Prepare a one-page summary of board operations: How often it meets, how long the meetings take, expected participation in board committees, attendance at events, donations, composition of the board, etc.
It isn't about checking boxes one of this, two of that nor is it about getting the biggest, wealthiest name in the business; it's about compatibility and alignment of goals. A lower-level manager may bring much more to the table than a partner in the firm.
The relationship between board members and the executive director is important, panelists agreed. The executive director, despite being dependent on the generosity of board donations, must not be intimidated by the board.
If a board member is not coming to meetings, not tapping into his/her network to help the organization or not actively participating in the governance of the organization, the board chair must be willing and able to confront the board member.
It is a privilege to serve on a board. The board chair needs to feel free to ask the board member to deliver on the expectations agreed to. (That's where the one-page summary comes in handy!)
Maintaining the Relationship
- Board members do require care and, literally, feeding: Regular one-on-one lunches with the executive director and board chair cement relationships with board members.
- So, too, do celebrations. Board members, like everyone else, want to have fun. Celebrate the programs, services, and accomplishments of the organization. Bring board members together with the clients when possible so they understand the organization's impact and feel good about their work with the nonprofit.
- Senior staff and the board should also work together on committees or projects. Doing so gives both a better appreciation for the work of the other.
- Work on a strategic plan. The process builds the culture, camaraderie, and cohesiveness of the board and staff around a common mission.
- Provide feedback. Measure program outcomes so board members (and staff) know what is working.
- Be professional. Start and end meetings on time. Make sure needed information gets to board members before the meeting so they have time to read it. Have the authors of reports on hand at board meetings to answer questions. Focus the discussion. Professionalism shows the board that this is a worthwhile investment of time and that the time of the board members is valued. If a board member misses a meeting, follow up to make sure the information, discussion, and decisions are understood.
- Make board members feel that they matter and that they are contributing something of value. Remember, however, that they all matter. Treat everyone the same, no matter whether they are contributing large sums of money or contributing the insight that comes from having been a client themselves.
- Know what board members' corporations can provide. Many board members don't realize that their employers will provide matching funds or have venues for meetings and fund-raisers. The board chair and the executive director need to do some homework.
No one learns to be a board member through a training program. You learn by jumping into a board: Some sink, some swim, and others figure out they are in the wrong pool.
David LaGreca, executive director of Volunteer Consulting Group, has extensive experience working with corporate and nonprofit executives in performance coaching and refining business operations.
Miriam Buhl, pro bono counsel at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, LLP, coordinates the firm's worldwide pro bono program. She was state director for the Greater New York Chapter of the March of Dimes and executive director of the New York Women's Foundation.
Richard Berlin is executive director at Harlem RBI and a founding member of the Harlem RBI DREAM Charter School. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the New School University.
Beth Stellato, works in the Office of the Chairman at Goldman, Sachs & Co. to assist partners in finding the right nonprofit board for them.