Who do you want on your board — and why? Intentional board development creates sustainability

By Patti Gillenwater

Building and sustaining an effective and engaged board is critical for the long-term success of any nonprofit. A few months ago, we discussed the reasons why people join nonprofit boards and the various backgrounds they typically come from.

Today we are looking at board development from the perspective of the organization – who do you want on your board, and why? Your board governance committee is charged with this essential task of providing leadership for today and the future.

The committee

The board development committee members should include the past, current and future board chairs, other board members who bring a diversity of perspectives and contacts, and the executive director. All of these opinions are vital to building a great board.

Align with your strategic plan

The first step in developing your board pipeline is to consider your strategic plan and align the board committee with that plan. Using this information you can clearly define the backgrounds and experience you need on the board.

Write job descriptions

Write or review board job descriptions that will support the plans of your nonprofit, and define the expectations for board members and officers of the board. These documents will guide you as you consider potential board candidates, review the current performance of board members, and help your new board members get started with a clear picture of what is expected of them.

Develop a matrix

Now you are equipped to define your matrix of the skills, experience and traits needed for your board. Your matrix might include attributes such as the ability to fundraise, a high profile in community, shared values, a direct connection to the cause and a specific body of knowledge.

When considering the knowledge a board member is bringing, be sure to consider knowledge related to the work done by the organization, business acumen and leadership qualities. You do not want a board heavily populated by individuals with similar backgrounds. When you address their leadership experience, you will want to consider past board experience, as well as the traits that support the board culture that is most effective for you.

Review current board members 

At the end of each operating year, review your current board to determine which members were most effective, which are coming to the end of their term and who you want to retain. In addition, discuss the current members who have demonstrated the leadership abilities and commitment necessary to be invited into the succession line-up to become Board Chair. Develop a plan to move them into the Executive Committee for further development.

At this point conversations must be carefully constructed. You want to motivate and retain great board members, and you want to be cautious about asking a board member to move into a key role until you are confident that that person will be the right leader for this important role.

Create a pipeline of candidates

With your homework completed, you are now ready to build a pipeline of candidates with the intention of filling the leadership needs of your nonprofit. The committee should ask for candidates from the full board, staff and board committees. In addition, you may go to your stakeholders in the community to ask for their referrals and ideas.

As you develop your list, you can then prioritize your potential candidates and begin the courtship. Be prepared for it to take several years to bring new board members to the organization, especially members of the community who already serve on other boards.

Screen and select board members

The process of screening potential board members is intertwined with creating your pipeline. You do not want to be in the position of inviting someone to join your board and then learn something that causes you to regret the invitation! You can quietly ask about them before you decide to approach them for your board position. It is much better to take extra care in the selection process than to later have the distraction of a dysfunctional board member.

Intentionally building your board will ensure the sustainability of your nonprofit and the engagement of your board members.

Patti Gillenwater is CEO of Elinvar. A Philanthropy Journal Sponsor, Elinvar is a retained search and leadership development firm that specializes in serving mission driven organizations in North Carolina.

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