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The Board Member Recruiting Challenge
Finding and recruiting new members to serve on the board is not only one of the most important responsibilities of an association’s board of directors — it’s also one of the most challenging. Roughly 80 percent of nonprofits are actively recruiting between one and six board members, according to the most recent “Leading with Intent” survey from BoardSource. In addition, 58 percent of nonprofit leaders say the process of recruiting new board members is difficult. That’s because it’s not about finding people to fill seats, said Steve Bova, executive director at Financial and Insurance Conference Planners (FICP), it’s about finding the right people.

Why They Say No

The complexity and speed of life today makes it more difficult for people to give the time — or make it a priority — to serve on a board. “It’s a pretty big commitment that requires a lot of responsibility,” said Bova. “It’s not just showing up at a few meetings. It’s about being engaged, serving and doing what is right for the organization.”

Adding to the recruiting challenge is the fact that people don’t typically serve on boards as long as they have in the past. Part of the reason for that is term limits. A recent National Association of Corporate Directors Nonprofit Governance Survey found that nearly two-thirds of nonprofits (64 percent) have term limits. However, it is also impacted by people prioritizing their time — many are willing to serve, but not for multiple terms. That can be a positive development in that the organization is always bringing in fresh perspectives and ideas. However, it also leads to greater turnover. This, of course, adds to the recruiting challenge. Further, it leads to more overall inexperience on the board. “What you might gain in a different perspective you might lose in experience,” Bova said.

Getting Them to Say Yes

The most successful organizations seek out the most talented board members, rather than just letting candidates come to them, said Bova. However, in reality many boards are passive about identifying and recruiting people to serve. They might simply send out a call for nominations and hope for great candidates to respond, or they wait until the last minute and recruit someone they know.

It’s important to keep in mind great candidates are usually more than willing to serve if approached. “In many cases, people who seem reluctant to volunteer eagerly do so if asked,” said Bova.

“It’s also vital for people to understand the roles they are being offered and the expectations that come with it before making the commitment to serve,” said Bova. FICP uses a simple handout called “Before You Say Yes,” which is a checklist to determine if the candidate understands what’s required. For example, it asks if they fully appreciate the time commitment needed and understand the fiduciary obligations of serving. Also, it asks if they have the support of their employer, and if there are any conflicts of interest.

Further, FICP also has a resource it gives to potential board members that outlines the benefits of serving. For the individual, it’s an opportunity to grow personally and professionally, as well as affect change, give back, and be more involved as an industry leader. It also notes that serving will provide good visibility for the board member’s company.

Establishing Criteria

The recruiting process should start with the board or nominating committee establishing criteria that outlines what the board is presently looking for in candidates. Is it searching for a forward-thinking thought leader? A strategist? A candidate with a certain expertise the board lacks? Someone with an outside or different industry perspective? Representation from a certain demographic or stakeholder group? Maybe someone with a certain personality type? Or someone with an innovative or entrepreneurial way of thinking? Whatever the needs, the board needs to be in agreement.

The North American Wholesale Lumber Association (NAWLA) tasks its six-member executive committee to drive the nominating process. While the association does send out a call for nominations, the executive committee also looks for individuals to serve on the board or its committees, which can be a steppingstone to the board, based on the current needs, explained Marc Saracco, NAWLA’s executive director. The committee vets all the candidates that come in and develops a slate that must be approved by the membership.

This multi-pronged approach is a best practice. Putting out a call through association meetings and events, in-house — or industry — publications, the website and social media sites is an effective way to reach great candidates. But the active recruiting must also be a part of the strategy. Some associations even appoint talent councils, whose sole charge it is to find the right people to serve on boards, committees, or advisory councils. These talent councils can also be used to mentor future board members. And no matter what tactics are employed, it’s not enough to have one conference call a year to brainstorm potential candidates. It needs to be a year-round process.

Creating a Pipeline

“You should always be looking for good volunteers to keep the pipeline full,” Bova said. Rather than recruiting each year on a one-off basis, the idea is to create a talent lineup that the association can tap as it moves forward. “We've always got about six to ten people that we’re thoughtfully developing for the board and other key positions,” said Bova.

Once the committee has found the right people to serve on the board, a leading practice is to recommend a slate of candidates for full board or membership approval, as opposed to holding elections. Elections create winners and losers, said Bova, which could discourage a good potential board member who loses from wanting to serve or run in the future. Or if an existing director openly loses an election for an officer position, they could become disengaged from the board in the future.

And those qualified candidates that aren’t picked for the slate in a particular year should be considered for future board openings, or asked to serve on committees until the next seat comes open.

Ultimately, those who serve recognize that board service is time well spent. “Everybody I've known who's ever been on a board says that they've gotten a lot more in return than they've given,” said Bova. “And that’s saying something because I’ve seen them give a lot.”
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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