Ditch Your Board Composition Matrix

You know the board matrix: it has a list of skills and competencies that are "supposed" to be on the board, such as legal, marketing, HR, fundraising, finance. And typically there are also demographic qualities, such as gender, race, age. The board matrix then shows what boxes you presumably need to fill.

What's wrong here is that these board composition matrices focus our attention on what people are, rather than on what the organization needs board members to do.

Three traps of the board composition matrix

Let's look at the three failures of board matrix approaches:

1. The skills trap: By identifying skills such as "legal" or "finance," we often end up with the wrong kind of legal or financial professional on the board. For example, when we say we need a lawyer, we may get a personal injury lawyer when the legal issues at our organization are about either employment or zoning.

If your organization needs help re-working a budget down to $650,000, a CPA who is in accounts receivable at Wells Fargo may not be as valuable as a non-CPA owner of a small business or the finance director at another nonprofit.

Furthermore, the emphasis on skills often leaves out experience, knowledge and perspective . . . and implies that only professionals are qualified to be on boards.

Instead of focusing on skills: focus on actions needed. Look for "someone who can and will help us analyze the true costs of our hotline" rather than look for a CPA. And by focusing on actions, we also tie recruitment to the real-life needs of our organization at this point in time, rather than a generic list.

2. The demographic trap: Nearly all boards feel weighed down by demographic diversity imperatives. Whether it's a mostly white board thinking, "we need someone who's black," or an all Asian board thinking, "we don't have anyone from India," too often we end up with someone who lets us check the demographic box but never becomes engaged.

Instead: focus on actions needed. Do we need someone who can reach the Arab grocers association to get their support for the plastic bag ban? Do we need someone who can help recruit Spanish speaking Big Brothers? Let's look for those action attributes rather than simply for someone who is Arab or who is Latino.

3. The connections trap: Too often we recruit board members because they are wealthy and know other wealthy people, or because they work for a corporation that we hope will make a corporate grant to us. But we don't feel comfortable bringing up the issue of major donations during the recruitment process. As a result, we recruit a wealthy woman, let's say, and spend the next year beaming the invisible message at her: "Volunteer for the fundraising committee and write a big check."

Just because a person makes $25,000 donations to other organizations doesn't mean she wants to make one to your organization. And just because she has wealthy friends doesn't mean she is willing to ask them for donations.

Just because someone works at a corporation doesn't mean they can or are willing to seek out a corporate donation for your organization. (They may have used up their chips already, or may be on poor terms with the people in the corporate giving department.)

And we've all recruited someone because he "knows everyone," and yet he never seems to get around to introducing us to anyone.

Instead: focus on actions needed. Rather than recruit someone "with connections to City Hall," ask a prospect if she would be willing and able to set up three or four lunches a year with city council members for your executive director and board president. Instead of recruiting someone because he's wealthy, ask him whether he would be willing to organize three other board members into a group that would try to raise $50,000 per year as a group.

By focusing on what people will do rather than what people are, we accomplish three goals:

  • We broaden our field of sight as we recruit for the board. Rather than just looking for someone in marketing, we think more widely and include bloggers, writers, community organizers, and others who know how to communicate a message.
  • We don't end up recruiting someone with the right demographics or professional background or financial means but who can't or won't do what we have mistakenly assumed they could or would. When we recruit people for what they will do, we get people who can and do what is needed . . . . because we've asked them if they can and will. And someone who has joined a board to help with getting zoning laws changed in your neighborhood is someone who will want to get started on that at his or her very first board meeting.
  • We ground board recruitment in the needs of this organization at this time in its development, rather than on a generic set of skills or attributes out of a textbook. And by doing so, we focus our recruitment on the critical path of the organization and its strategic, pressing needs.

So throw out that board composition matrix. Instead: ask these questions:

a) What are the three most important things for our board to accomplish this year?
b) Do we have the right people on the board to make that happen?

See also in Blue Avocado:

Jan Masaoka is the publisher of Blue Avocado, and the CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits. Her book on boards -- Best of the Board Cafe, Hands-On Solutions for Nonprofit Boards Second Edition -- is a practical compilation of short articles for nonprofit boards that unfortunately includes a board composition matrix that you should ignore. She wants to know why "Grumpy" or "Contrarian" never seem to be one of the desirable demographic characteristics on board composition matrices.

Comments (19)

  • Anonymous

    Halleluja! I completely agree with you, Jan, as usual! I call the matrix approach to board recruitment the "Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker" system. The problem with this approach is that there is no one set of skills that every board needs. Even the same board evolves its requirements over time. The emphasis on actions and outcomes is a signficant shift for most boards, and helps support a culture focused on board perforfmance, rather than board composition.

    Jun 12, 2012
  • Jan: I can't wait to share this with our Board Development Committee! It couldn't come at a better time for our organization. I so enjoy reading your articles and until now, have not taken the time to tell you. The job of Executive Director is a lonely one. Reading Blue Avocado, and especially your articles helps me feel less alone and very much supported. A heartfelt thanks! --Vicki Doolittle, Executive Director Su Casa ~ Ending Domestic Violence

    Jun 12, 2012
  • Anonymous

    In response to Jan's bio at the bottom ("She wants to know why "Grumpy" or "Contrarian" never seem to be [included]")... When we last did some recruiting for our board, we knew we would be losing our resident "Devil's Advocate", so we looked specifically for someone who could play the contrarian role. We call it something nicer, but having someone to do that, who is strong enough to endure the (usually) good natured groans is invaluable. Great article! I especially liked the two final questions that sum it up.

    Jun 12, 2012
  • Thanks! It's great to see recognition for the role of devil's advocate. Sometimes the board chair has to raise those points if no one else will! Jan

    Jun 13, 2012
  • Anonymous

    I agree completely that it's important to consider the 'what could go wrong', 'why won't this work' side of things. A well thought out plan needs to consider pros and cons and what can be done to mitigate the cons. On the other hand, I'm all for doing this in a constructive and positive framework. In my experience, grumps and contrarians bring down the energy of the entire organization in an unproductive fashion.

    Jun 14, 2012
  • Anonymous

    I recommend a matrix AND recommend that the board review it annually as their needs shift -- and totally re-vamp it every time they do any sort of major planning. I find it really helps organizations whose idea of board development is limited to their social or neighborhood circles and who don't stop to think WHY "Dan would make such a great board member, he's so energetic and likeable," or add people because of friendships. That said, I think the first two points are well taken, but they don't really argue against using a matrix: they argue against using a matrix in a shallow way. You have to use the matrix critically and strategically --- really THINK about WHY you might need a lawyer, etc. If boards do that, they can look for exactly the kind of skills or demographic profiles they need and want. The third point is not about a matrix at all -- it's about the unfortunately wide-spread habit of many boards that expect donations BUT NEVER ACTUALLY COMMUNICATE THAT in advance, during recruitment, or in a board agreement. It may sound as though I disagree with the fundamental point of this post, but I don't -- focusing on DOING not BEING is absolutely the right way to go!

    Jun 12, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Absolutely agree with these comments. The board recruitment process should be strategic and it should focus on LONG-TERM goals; not just what the board needs to get done today. I, too, agree with the premise of moving the organization forward. I've seen the use of the board matrix give a group of disparate folks a way to organize their ideas and to get moving in a direction.....

    Oct 27, 2013
  • Anonymous

    I still believe that some matrices are useful to create some kind of a recruitment "pool." As much as we'd like to think demographics should not matter, they do for some organizations so the "matrix baby" ought not be thrown out with the bath water. I also believe that using action-oriented questions in the interview process can bring out what a person can and will do...and even then, depending on the organization and its culture it can be a crap shoot.

    Jun 12, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Matrices definitely have limits. I think the bigger problem is that they aren't taken seriously! I'm on a board that has been a club of close friends for too long. Anyone who even asks a question is considered a gadfly. Using a matrix helped everyone to see the important constituencies they were missing. So then, when some of us submitted names from the new worlds, the response from the leadership was, "We don't know these people." So much for the matrix!

    Jun 13, 2012
  • Thanks to everyone for these good comments and insights about experiences. To clarify just a bit, I agree that a matrix can be a good tool for helping a group to expand its thinking beyond the "who do we know?" question. But we need to seek people for what they will do, and what our organization needs them to do, rather than what they are, and typically "are" on a generic list.

    At the California Association of Nonprofits where I now work, we have business and constituency reasons for having board members from different areas of the state. But the issue is whether a person has a) the connections and work that enable them to bring nonprofit issues from their area to the board's thinking, and b) can and will bring the organization's perspective to the nonprofits in their areas.

    Thanks everyone! Jan

    Jun 13, 2012
  • Just read your article on Ditch your Board Composition Matrix. Loved it. You're soooooooo right. -- Jean-Paul

    Jun 14, 2012
  • Anonymous

    One of the most important points you make is that you are recruiting for your needs now and for the immediate future. Because needs change, board composition needs to change. Yet, there are still boards that either do not have or do not enforce term limits. As a consultant, I have found this to be one of the biggest obstacles to having an effective board. The matrix is just a form to help focus on what needs are not being addressed. I think too many nonprofits have indeed used it as a checklist and not delved deeper into its purpose. Thank you, Jan, for reminding us all.

    Jun 15, 2012
  • I am agreeing with those who say "don't dump the matrix" and but rather change its focus to include lines that focus on what people can do. Depending on the organizations strategic priorities, sample lines could include: a) can help with streamlining budgets; b) can connect us to government leaders; c) can provide HR oversight; etc. etc. I am not an engineer but know folks who are and I am pretty sure that they use "tools" to build roads and buildings. I agree that the bigger and more important conversation here is not abot the matrix, it is about the contents and what we use it for. Tish Mogan

    Jun 19, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Great topic and conversation here - and I think of this more of "AND" ... use a matrix WITH the board and organization strategic planning. The strategic plan, rather than sitting on a shelf, can help direct board recruitment and development efforts by using the goals and opportunities to direct the skills, abilities and actions needed by board members. Matrices are tools and should be adapted to focus organizational efforts toward the outcomes that have been determined for the growth of the organization. Yes, the matrices that just categorize race, industry, age, etc. can be hollow - but paired with board training, the goals and outcome sought, it can be an important part of the both board orientation and work.

    Oct 26, 2012
  • Anonymous

    Jan, If you were a Millennial (on the older end) and desired to be on a board, or desired to be developed in that realm what advice would you have for that person?

    Feb 19, 2013
  • Your question would make a great article for a future Blue Avocado. Thanks for the nudge.

    Feb 19, 2013
  • Any chance the above mention article was written? I am in the same boat as the writer.

    May 12, 2017
  • Good article. Excellent summary sentence below:

    "What's wrong here is that these board composition matrices focus our attention on what people are, rather than on what the organization needs board members to do."

    Like picking at "personality" rather than actionable EI:

    It's all too easy for people to get lost in trying to "fix" other people (which is a huge waste of time and energy, and isn't intended to be the focus of a board) rather than focusing on results.

    Tracy E. L. Poured

    Nov 14, 2013
  • Hi, Ideas provided for considering race and ethnicity in the board matrix are extremely simplistic. While the board might initially need an Arabic member to reach the Arabic grocer, when the task is over, I hope that this person will bring a different perspective to the organization that is far beyond the task at a hand. Hopefully, most organizations seek a representative membership for "to do" items and because various backgrounds will help develop a very high functioning board based on a range of perspectives. Sincerely, Annie King

    Feb 21, 2015

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