Board members: Bag ‘em, fire ‘em up, get ‘em cookin’

Don Wells
Don Wells

Question:

What are the best places to find board members?

Answer:

Mars. No, I think the best place is firstly from…

* Board committees

Most boards have a variety of committees, which tend to include a couple of board members, along with a couple of non-board members.

These committees seem to be a fertile ground for finding board members who will enter their term with some prior experience with the organization and, in particular, with current board members.

*Matchmaking services

Some communities also have organizations specifically in the business of connecting wannabe board members with nonprofits.

The Triangle area in North Carolina, for example, has a free online service called Board Connect that posts profiles of folks who would like to serve on nonprofit boards.

* Volunteers

Another good resource is volunteers to the agency. Because of their prior commitment to the agency’s mission, you’re looking at a generally responsive set of people likely to say ‘yes’ because they have already said ‘yes’ to your organization at another level.

Volunteers also often have good contacts, for example, to new community members looking for a service opportunity like board work.

* Corporations

What I have done is woo a bank president with the community connections and corporate publicity board work affords, then ask if a subordinate would be interested; the CEO crowd rarely has the time.

It’s surprisingly easy and the reception is pretty amazing, because all of those things are true. A rising executive who sits on a nonprofit board tends to get good PR for the agency, as well as pretty good training rubbing elbows with folks in the community.

* Your own clients

For some agencies that’s problematic; for others it’s almost a requirement to have a client on your board in order to get funding.

Such “insider” board members have the added benefit of better informing your organization of client needs and identities.

Question:

What is the best way to motivate board members?

Answer:

* Don’t

If you have to motivate board members, you’re in deep trouble to start with.

At recruitment, you should have been absolutely candid as to what you expected from your board members — their commitment to and understanding of the mission, their reasons for signing on, willingness to attend board meetings and retreats, to make financial contributions.

Most board recruitment is not recruitment; it’s seduction. Potential board members are fed a lot of information about how little time this all takes, and then once they get on the board, they find out the truth. It’s very hard to motivate someone who’s been had.

Also, choose wisely. Most luminaries don’t have the time you need, so that’s why I usually go to the second tier.

What often happens is that, a year in, the senior manager thinks, “This is a great organization!” and you get a $50,000 donation to boot.

Once you get them on the board and they are motivated, it’s more about sustaining the interest that brought them there.

Make sure people are happy on the committees they’re on. Use their minds, don’t just have them listening to wretched reports the whole time.

Question:

What are the most important roles for board members to play in the organization?

Answer:

Boards normally work through three stages — a founding board, a working board, and a governing board, each of which requires very different commitments from board members.

* Founding board

A nonprofit board at this stage usually consists of the founder as ringleader and three to five people the founder has drawn to get something launched.

The most important role for a founding board to play is being wise in setting up structures that are sustainable, thoughtful and don’t have to be redone every year.

They must begin codifying policies of how to organize staff and lay the general foundations for the organization. All board members have to be involved in this work.

At this juncture, the nonprofit may actually be providing very few services, because it doesn’t actually have the personnel to do so.

* Working board

Once you get to a working board, which usually consists of 12 to 13 members in essence fulfilling all of the organization’s roles, you normally have that foundational piece pretty well set.

The board may choose to hire an executive director or secretary who deals with the day-to-day operations, but in no way is running the organization.

* Governing board

Certainly, most mature nonprofits are at this stage, where a board’s role becomes governance instead of management. A working board, in contrast, governs some, too, but mostly manages day-to-day operations.

A governing board should focus on setting policy and revising policy, while a hired staff develops practices to implement that policy.

They do long-range planning, sometimes called the dreaded “strategic plan,” which involves looking down the pipeline two or three years.

Most staff, on the other hand, are lucky if they can look down the pipeline as far as a week.

A mature board will approve the annual operating budget and monitor to make sure it’s being fulfilled through the work of the staff, as well as support and evaluate the executive director.

They make a personal financial contribution to the agency and generally assist with resource development.

The entire board should be involved in fundraising. In this sense, it’s important for board members to find their own niche, since fundraising is so broad-spectrum.

They do certainly fulfill the role at times of being the public face of the organization. If you are working with a very racially and ethnically diverse constituency, for example, you should ensure that your board in some way reflects that diversity.

Sometimes the most important thing a board can do is not doing. Not doing, for example, the executive director’s work for him. Don’t micromanage.

And finally, every board member should constantly be on the lookout for an outstanding replacement to succeed her when her term is up.

–Compiled by Elizabeth Floyd


Don Wells is lead consultant of DonWellsConsulting and former director of Duke University’s nonprofit program and of the Duke Institute in Nonprofit Leadership.

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