Recruiting Competent Board Members

Joanne Carman and Richard Clerkin

In our recent Philanthropy Journal poll about recruiting board members, respondents indicated that they frequently face challenges in recruiting competent volunteers to their board. The economic downturn the country has been dealing with for more than five years has made it even more challenging for more than a third of the respondents to recruit competent board members. At a time when nonprofits need skilled and dedicated volunteers to help make the strategic decisions necessary to navigate difficult financial times such leaders appear to our survey respondents to be in short supply.

The main challenge that emerged from our poll, as one Philanthropy Journal reader summed it up, is:  “Finding those committed to fulfilling ALL the duties associated with the position.”

Many volunteers are drawn to serve on a nonprofit’s board because of a deep connection and commitment to the organization’s mission and may be unaware of the business side of nonprofits. In particular, they may care deeply about their nonprofit’s mission, but either do not want to or do not know how to help raise the financial resources necessary to sustain the organization in its work to accomplish its mission.

A first step nonprofits need to take when facing the challenge of recruiting board members is to determine the knowledge, skills, abilities, perspectives, and connections they want on their board. Not all board members can be expected to have each of the desired qualities, so nonprofits need to fill their board with a collection of individuals that in total have the assets needed to govern the organization. Skill and demographic diversity can bring a variety of perspectives on the operational side of a nonprofit and provide key connections to constituency groups that understand how the organization is perceived and that can help manage those perceptions.

Patricia Bradshaw and Christopher Fredette describe three common types of recruitment practices nonprofits employ in their search for competent board members.

  1. Print and Publication: publish vacancies on the organization’s website and other electronic media and advertise in community-wide print newspapers and newspapers that target specific groups the nonprofit may desire for board representation.
  2. Interorganizational Alliances: to help identify qualified candidates, partner with organizations that have members with the skills or demographic characteristics the organization desires.
  3. Interpersonal Networks: mobilize board members to recruit through their networks. While the first two practices are likely to enhance board diversity, relying only on board member networks for recruitment tends to lead to fairly homogenous boards.

Not all board members will individually have all of the knowledge, skills, abilities, perspectives, and connections that lead to effective governance. However, a board as a whole can have them. By employing the three types of recruitment practices above, nonprofits can begin to assemble such a board.

Bradshaw, P. & Fredette, C. (2012). Determinants of the Range of Ethnocultural Diversity on Nonprofit Boards: A Study of Large Canadian Nonprofit Organizations. Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Quarterly, online August 1, 2012.

Joanne G. Carman is an Associate Professor in the Political Science and Public Administration Department at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. Her teaching and research focuses on program evaluation and nonprofit management, and she is the Coordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management. Richard M. Clerkin is an Associate Professor in the Public Administration Department at North Carolina State University. His teaching and research focuses on philanthropy and management and he is the Director of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management.

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