An Effective Strategy to Choose New Board Members
While there are several different ways associations choose volunteers for their boards, most fall broadly into variations of two models — election and selection. For an election, the association will typically put out a notice seeking candidates, the general membership will vote, and the candidate receiving the most votes joins the board. For the selection model, usually a nominating committee will select, vet, and recommend a full board slate to fill board vacancies and officer positions based on their qualifications. The board then approves the slate. Many associations then bring this slate to the full membership for a vote. In this model, the entire slate is either approved or denied. There is no voting on individual candidates. If the slate is voted down, a new slate must be put up for a vote.
Many associations find the slate election process to be an effective way to identify candidates with the right skills, experience, and mindset to make a positive impact on the organization while giving voice to the membership. While it’s just one of several different models that associations employ — all of which may have value depending on the specific needs of that particular association — in this article, we’ll focus on why the slate election is a good strategy to build a pipeline of qualified candidates.
Popular Vote vs Slate Election
There are a few key reasons why a slate election may be preferable to a popular vote election and worthy of consideration. “If you polled the members of any association, most would not be aware of who is running for a board seat and why,” says Steve Bova, senior director at Smithbucklin. As a result, popular vote elections can come down to chance — who has the most name recognition among the candidates — which should not be the primary criteria for effective board service.
Bret Kelsey, senior director at SmithBucklin, concurs. “Sometimes a popular vote election process doesn't yield the person that you’re looking for,” he says. “The individual who can win a popularity contest among members may not always have the qualifications, experience, or time to serve effectively,” explains Kelsey. Instead, the board should seek candidates that have the skills and qualities that best serve the mission of the organization. “One positive aspect of a slate election is that it allows the position to seek the person, not the other way around.”
Another pitfall of a popular vote election, says Bova, is that it creates winners and losers. “When you have accomplished, high-profile people who might be the most qualified individuals for the board, it’s tough to put them under a microscope and potentially embarrass them if they don’t win. Then you lose out on a good candidate in the future,” Bova says. Ultimately, a popular vote election can be more about the candidates just trying to get on the board than it is about getting the right people on the board. “That’s really the point of this — getting the right people on the board,” Bova says. With a slate election, the emphasis is on recruiting, vetting, and selecting the group of candidates that will work well together. It’s akin to forming a team.
Build a Pipeline
So how do boards go about finding the right people for the slate? Ultimately, the goal is to build a team of diverse and talented directors who can function at a high level. Kelsey recommends a process where the potential candidates funnel through a Nomination Committee – or, as his association calls it, a Leadership Management Committee. The committee — which may consist of board members, non-board member volunteers, as well as a staff liaison — is charged with recruiting and vetting volunteer leaders. An additional benefit is that the pipeline can be used to fill a variety of roles as they come up, not just on the board, but on committees, task forces, and more. “The pipeline is important,” says Bova. “You want to have a pipeline of people in your industry who are interested, eligible, and capable of serving.”
The process to build that pipeline needs to be year-round. “Research proves that most people don't volunteer unless they’re asked – so it behooves the board or the committee members to have conversations throughout the year to identify potential new board members and educate them about the process,” says Bova. “Identifying and recruiting people to serve is a year-long sport.”
Bova and Kelsey recommend a proactive approach. “We want our Leadership Management Committee to be constantly scanning for and cultivating new volunteers who could one day serve on the board,” Kelsey says. “We’re looking two to three years out.” His association reaches out to potential candidates by posting descriptions of the openings on the website and in newsletters, and promoting them at meetings and during a new volunteer recruitment event at the annual conference. In addition, the association conducts an online survey with a series of questions that are designed to elicit responses on the candidates’ experience, attitudes, and qualifications. In addition, the committee members, as well as the board members, are encouraged to look proactively for candidates during their interactions with members throughout the year.
The potential candidates for the slate all funnel through the committee, which then vets them, explains Kelsey. The committee members look at the responses and evaluate the characteristics, experience, and skills of each candidate. Also, they determine whether the individual can make the role a priority. “Then we zero in on the attributes that we think are most important,” Kelsey said. For a board role, that might be the ability to think strategically, or it might be a long-term vision for the association. For a committee role, the quality needed might be specific expertise. For those under strong consideration, the committee will typically conduct follow-up interviews and inquiries. As part of the pipeline, sometimes candidates will move from other volunteer positions to board roles. But in other cases, new candidates who have not formally served will be recommended for board seats. If the board accepts the recommendations for the new candidates, it will put them on the slate along with the existing board members. The full membership will then vote on the slate.
One of the risks, says Bova, is the committee or board members just bringing in only people they know or their friends. “If the selection process is rigorous enough, that won’t happen,” he says. It’s the job of the board or committee to vet that person and get to know his or her qualifications and skills.
Of course, the rules governing how board members are chosen are usually written into the bylaws, so any changes to the process would require changes to the bylaws. Overall, however, the process used for selecting new board members has to be professional and comprehensive because the recruiting and selection process is about good stewardship, says Bova. Ultimately, he adds, board selection is perhaps the most important thing that the board does.
MARCH 2019 EDITION
| 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.