Building a board


What are three things nonprofits should consider when selecting board members?


One of the most important responsibilities of a nonprofit board is developing a target profile for its membership and establishing a recruiting process.

The membership or governance committee holds a critical role, as it is charged with ensuring the future growth and survival of the nonprofit.

* Portfolio structuring

A board needs to define the current and long-term skill sets needed and recruit based on those projections.

The board must be confident that the current and potential board members are passionately committed to the nonprofit’s mission and goals, and that they bring in valuable expertise that matches current needs.

For example, school boards are often heavily comprised of alumni, present and past parents and educators because of their passion or expertise.

Boards also need to recruit for expertise in finance and development, as well as many other talents that may be unique to an organization.

Term limits are essential for boards so that new blood can easily be added.

To maintain the expertise of senior board members, the creation of Honorary Trustees or committee memberships provides consistency and historical context while allowing for refreshed ideas from new members.

It’s important to include the CEO in important strategic discussions. As the leaders of the organization, the CEO and select members of the senior team can often provide a critical perspective.

* Individual member recruiting

The nominating committee needs to have a clear understanding of the role to be played by each potential board member.

It’s not enough to just have a strong candidate.  The person also must contribute a specific skill that is needed for a defined board term.

The nominating committee is obligated to share with potential board candidates its philanthropic expectations, anticipated time commitments and expected attendance at board and committee meetings.

The recruitment process is also a time to uncover or discuss potential conflicts of interest. Without a deep interchange, there will not be success in building a strong board.

Board nominees should be shared with the existing seated board to help confirm an appropriate selection.

* Succession planning

One of the key roles of the nominating committee is to groom current board members for future leadership roles and select new board members that have long-term potential.

Each critical role on the board should have a slated board member for succession. Long-term coaching and grooming greatly adds to the success of leadership.

The board is ultimately responsible for CEO selection and evaluation, the financial health and oversight of the organization, and long-term planning.

Collectively, the effective execution of these tasks and others requires a strong and vibrant board of competent members today as well as a proactive plan for future regeneration.

— Compiled by Leslie Williams

Warren McFarlan is a Baker Foundation Professor and Albert H. Gordon Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, in the General Management Unit at Harvard Business School.  He is also a faculty member of the upcoming HBS Executive Education Program, Governing for Nonprofit Excellence: Critical Issues for Board Leadership.

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