Updated: Jul 17, 2022
The skills, resources, and experience of directors are not sufficient to meet the needs of most nonprofit organizations. Stanford Graduate School of Business 2015 Study
A nonprofit startup's first board is made up of the founders circle of influence. It's when this circle mirrors the founder that trouble can brew.
Relatives and friends make for poor board members if they do not have the skills, resources, and passion for the mission. Throw in the independence requirement, and a board filled with family and/or friends fails to meet the IRS requirements.
There is a better way to build your first board. Recruiting for skill set, resources and connections, and passion for the mission will set up for success any startup nonprofit organization.
GET YOUR BOARD MATRIX TO RECRUIT FOR SKILL SET & RESOURCES
How to Recruit Nonprofit Board Members
Use the links below to jump to sections within the blog post.
Find the Right Skills for the Nonprofit Lifecycle Startup Stage
I have yet to see a single blog post or resource that differentiates the needs of nonprofit boards at different stages of life. Dr. Susan Kenny Stephens has created the seminal work for lifecycle theory. And, while revolutionary, it just makes common sense.
When reviewing the top websites on board development, there are few to none that mentions the different needs nonprofit organizations have at various lifecycle stages. As a matter of fact, they mainly relate to the needs of more mature organizations.
According to the IRS Data Book, there were over 81,500 approved applications for tax exempt status in 2021. The overwhelming majority of these were charitable 510(c)(3) organizations.
That's 81,500 founders building their first board in a single year.
It is imperative that the needs of startups be considered. You wouldn't give a Kindergartener a calculus textbook. So, why are we limiting the resources for board member recruitment to just those suitable for mature organizations?
Building a board specifically for the nonprofit startup stage means finding people who not only are passionate about the mission but who are willing and able to take on the responsibilities of a first board.
Know the Board's Roles & Responsibilities
Every founder has that moment when they wonder if they have what it takes to see their organization succeed. That is when the right people on the startup's first board roll up their sleeves and help the founder propel the mission.
According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, only 50% of nonprofits survive their first year. The board that fully embraces their roles and responsibilities will ensure their organization is on the right side of that 50%.
The Working Board Difference
A nonprofit's first board is almost always a working board. The organization is unlikely to have paid staff, so everyone is volunteering their time and talents.
All nonprofit boards have a governance role. This role includes the responsibilities of:
hiring, paying, and oversight of the Executive Director or CEO
acting as a fiduciary
legal and IRS compliance
A nonprofit startup board also fills in the roles of would-be staff members, such as:
tax form completion
These duties are performed by board members and other volunteers within their circles of influence.
Recruiting to fill both governance and working roles is a tall order. Not everyone is ready to give all that it takes to sit on a working board.
However, filling your board with those who have been handpicked for skillset, resources, and mission-fit will get your organization off on the right foot quickly.
Board engagement is critical at this stage, so be sure to thoroughly explain the expectations of time, talents, and financial contributions during the interview process.
Identify the Skill Sets to Recruit
Getting the right talents at the table requires an introspection. Your mission statement is the first place to begin searching for required skills. The second place is your operating plan or business plan.
Not every nonprofit will need a social worker, a political advocate, or an artist on their board. However, every nonprofit board will need a legal expert, a financial guru, and a PR/ marketing professional.
GET YOUR BOARD MATRIX TO RECRUIT FOR SKILL SET & RESOURCES
The Legal Expert
It's imperative to have a legal professional on your board with expertise in the area of your programs. For example, a new human services organization that provides housing assistance to homeless families will benefit from a real estate attorney.
It is also helpful to have someone in your circle who understands the legal landscape of nonprofit organizations. This person can help you comply with all the necessary regulations and make sure you’re staying on the right side of the law. This person does not have to be a voting board member. This could be a consultant or a member of an advisory committee.
The Financial Guru
Similar to legal regulations, the nonprofit world is full of financial complexities. You need someone on your board who can help you navigate these waters. Ideally, this person will have a background in accounting or finance. But even if they don’t, they should at least be comfortable reading financial statements and understand basic financial concepts.
As soon as possible, make sure you find a nonprofit accounting expert. This usually comes in the form of a consultant. It could be a CPA firm that specializes in nonprofit accounting or a consulting firm that specializes in nonprofit finance.
A Marketing Wizard
To help bring in the financial and volunteer support, marketing is essential for any nonprofit organization. You need someone on your board who can help you develop and implement marketing strategies. This person should have a deep understanding of marketing principles and know how to reach your target audience.
A general marketing professional is perhaps the best person for the board position. Since there are so many specialties in the marketing profession, the generalist can introduce the organization to other specialists when they are needed.
Build Your Board Bench
Those that you need on the board today may not be the same people you need on the board at later stages. Creating a matrix of current board members and needed skills will keep your recruiting focused year after year.
Fill in the board matrix template with the skill sets you currently have as well as some demographic information. This will help to keep your eye on diversity as well.
GET YOUR BOARD MATRIX TO RECRUIT FOR SKILL SET & RESOURCES
Identify the Personalities to Recruit & 2 to Avoid
Nothing ruins a board meeting quicker than clashing personalities. Having a mix of personalities adds diversity to the board's thinking and the organization's strategy.
However, knowing which personalities work against each other will make recruiting board members much more beneficial. Using a tool like Patrick Lencioni's Working Genius will inform your recruiting efforts.
The last thing you want is a board made up of the 6 directors charity coach & consultant, Steve Allman describes in his LinkedIn post. In my opinion, the 2 personalities to avoid are Negative Nigel who's done it all and it never worked, and Owen Ostrich who avoids confrontation and lacks the confidence to speak up.
Use Social Media to Find Board Member Recruits
Now that you know the type of candidates your new board needs, it's time to figure out how to meet them.
The first place is your own circle of influence. *Wait! I thought you said not to draft my relatives and friends!* Very good, grasshopper. You were paying attention.
The founder's circle of influence is much broader than close family and friends. Think of the difference between your LinkedIn connections versus Facebook friends.
As a matter of fact, LinkedIn is a great place to find working board candidates. LinkedIn would be useful if you only mined your 2nd and 3rd degree connections.
But wait, there's more! LinkedIn provides a tool to help you recruit new directors called LinkedIn Sales Navigator. I know it doesn't sound like it's for nonprofits. LinkedIn has several segments of this tool that focuses on different industries.
Using LinkedIn, whether using only the search features or the the more advanced Sales Navigator, will give you great insights to potential board members. You can even see who can make a warm introduction for you.
LinkedIn is a great tool for getting warm introductions to potential board members. There are volunteer matching services that can be good sources as well. Check to see if your city has a local volunteer matching service. Also check out VolunteerMatch, and Board Strong for other candidates.
Interview and Evaluate Board Member Candidates
Creating a process for interviews and evaluation ahead of time makes this process much more efficient. It also puts everyone on an even playing field while allowing the interview workload to be divided among organization leaders. Below are some best practices for this process.
Step 1: The Interview
As you work through the board member recruitment matrix, make note of personality traits. Here are 7 key things to look out for while interviewing potential new board members.
Pay attention to the listening style of the potential director.
How does the person speak about their past nonprofit board of directors experiences?
Did the potential new member demonstrate prior knowledge of the organization? This shows initiative was taken to do research prior to the meeting.
Gauge the quality of the questions asked by the candidate.
Questions regarding financials, strategies, and culture exhibit governance-type thinking.
Questions regarding operations minutia instead of the higher-level items in # 5 could signal a candidate who'd rather sweat the small stuff than tackling the bigger issues.
Questions regarding operations in the recruits area of expertise along with the higher-level items in # 5 is a green-light moment when recruiting for a working board.
In what ways does the director candidate exhibit their passion for the organization's mission?
Make sure you are also prepared to give the potential board member a good indication of what to expect from board meetings, in what capacity you'd like them to serve, and how you'd like to leverage their expertise. Bonus points if you provide a written document to the recruit.
Step 2: The Volunteer
Once the interview results have been reviewed, consider asking the potential new board member to volunteer with your organization. The length of time is not as relevant as the activities and community being exposed.
For example, candidate Sandy, a marketing executive, did well in the interview stage. The founder has requested she volunteer at the next Heat Relief program. While Sandy was only there for about an hour, she was able to see the mission in action, talk to the community participants, and see where she could add value as a member of the startup's working board.
Step 3: The Meeting
Since this is the organization's first board, there may not be formal board meetings yet. That's ok. If there are formal meetings, then invite the board candidate to sit in on one. Give the candidate access to all of the same materials other board members receive during the meeting. After the meeting, meet for a quick debrief.
Whether or not formal meetings are a part of your operations, ask another board member or another stakeholder to meet with the board candidate to discover more about the candidate's interests. At this meeting, it is likely the candidate will do most of the talking and asking questions. This meeting should not be attended by the founder.
Step 4: The Selection
Once all the intelligence has been gathered, it's time to make a selection. This can be done with more objectivity and transparency by ranking the candidate on each of the important values in the board matrix.
He or she who has the best score wins. Though, reserve the right to veto. Objectivity has it's place, but trust your gut. After all, you'll be working with this individual for years to come.
Conclusion & Closing Thoughts
A nonprofit startup's first board will make or break the momentum of the organization. Taking time to identify the skills needed using the board matrix will ensure your board is filled with the people who are ready to work.
Setting aside time to interview potential candidates with thoughtful questions will help you determine if the recruit is the right fit for your organization.
Recruiting the best board members is only the first step. Get your team of experts off to the races with proper orientation.