It is not uncommon for nonprofit executives and staff to complain about our boards of directors. How often do we become frustrated with a perceived (or real) lack of interest and/or low engagement from our boards? As employees, we tend to think they are the problem. And in some cases, that may be true.
But is it possible that we get the boards of directors we deserve?
Many nonprofit organizations give a cursory glance toward their board nominating process; some even simply go through the formality of a process. Yet a healthy nominating committee should be one of the most critical and strategic standing committees a nonprofit engages. But why is a healthy nominating committee so integral to the nonprofit’s overall health?
It’s relatively straightforward: the board candidates who are put forward now represent the strength—or weakness—of the organization’s future. Or, put another way: engaged, strong board members make a strong organization. Conversely, no matter how educated, experienced, talented, and farsighted the staff might be, unengaged board members produce a weak nonprofit.
The nominating process is vital to creating a healthy and stable nonprofit. This process should be a strategic, intentional, and ongoing priority for the nonprofit.
When building out a healthy nominating process, here are seven ideas to consider:
1. The nominating process should be a year-round activity.
The nominating committee, board members, and staff should all constantly be on the look-out for potential board members. Throughout the year, the nominating committee should check-in with board members and staff to compile a running list of potential board members and the value they would add to the organization.
Traditionally, nonprofits often look for potential board members who are well-known, active, and respected leaders in the community. However, don’t overlook identifying younger, diverse, and rising leaders who could have something to offer that those older leaders in the community do not.
Remember, the best candidates are not always the most obvious choices. Keep your eyes peeled throughout the year. Be the nonprofit who is known for discovering the diamonds in the rough, and when those jewels leave your board they’re the ones other nonprofits attempt to recruit.
2. The nominating committee should be an active, ongoing committee.
Similar to the previous point, the nominating committee is not a one-time thing. Rather, it must be constantly searching for these dynamic board members throughout the lifespan of the organization. After the creation of the prospective board member list, it should be maintained for as long as the nonprofit exists.
An active and ongoing nominating committee doesn’t need to be large. Prevailing nonprofit practice suggests having two or three board members and one or two community members who are very familiar with your organization (think former, active board members). Task them to be thinking of individuals and submitting names that will be placed on the collective list of potential board members. A few months before the annual meeting, the nominating committee should prioritize these names in terms of the most appropriate candidates.
3. Know what your needs are.
The nominating committee should keep a keen, strategic eye on the skillsets of your current board members. This helps identify what gaps will be created when they rotate off the board at the end of their term.
There are at least two questions to keep in mind as you consider your board members’ strengths and weaknesses:
- What characteristics are needed to fill such gaps?
- What new trends in the community need to be tackled?
- Who can best help address them?
But there are other things to consider as well, including skillsets, familiarity with issues pertinent to your nonprofit, appropriate experience, and demographic factors. Essentially, the nominating committee should be recruiting not only for the nonprofit’s current needs but—just as importantly—be strategic and forward-thinking about what the nonprofit will need in the future.
The nominating committee should always keep the following question in mind: who can help us reach the goals identified in our strategic plan and beyond?
4. You don’t have to personally know your nominees.
Say someone—perhaps a member of the staff, perhaps another board member—identifies a very strong candidate, but no one in your nonprofit circle personally knows the individual. Don’t let this disqualify the potential board member. If they have the strengths and characteristics you are looking for, don’t be afraid to ask if they would be willing to serve.
The worst thing a potential board candidate can do is say no. No harm, no foul. However, you might be surprised how many will ask you to tell them more and eventually say yes to service. Then, you’ve snagged a premier board member. Many times a board member who is not very familiar with your organization can offer fresh insight and new perspectives that have not been previously considered.
5. Consider a trial run.
Uncertain if a candidate will be a good board member? One way to address this concern is to ask potential nominees to serve first on a committee.
This is a similar process to what is done in major league sports. Essentially you use your existing committee structure as your board of directors’ minor league farm team.
For this trial run, you can watch the prospective candidate, looking for the following:
- Do they come prepared?
- Do they ask good questions?
- Do they offer a unique and valuable perspective?
- Are they a good team player?
- Are they quick to volunteer to do additional tasks?
Identify those potential leaders who are cream rising to the top. If they show leadership in committees, chances are they will display the same leadership qualities on your board.
6. Recruit not just for skill but also for temperament.
Any vehicle needs just the right amount of friction—like wheels on pavement—to move forward. If all board members agree on everything with no questioning or disagreement of any kind, the wheels of the organization just spin. They go nowhere new. The scenery stays the same. A little discomfort or tension can actually be a healthy thing.
But there’s a flipside to this, especially when boards are rife with personal agendas, constant bickering, and/or contentious dissension. Too much friction and people might begin to wonder if anyone is at the wheel.
Ultimately, a nonprofit wants just the right amount of friction. Healthy nonprofit boards have recruited members who can ask the right questions at the right time in the right way. Recruited members who have the skill to ask the tough, uncomfortable, need-to-be-addressed questions in inquisitive, respectful manners provide the right amount of friction: just enough to move forward while keeping the mission and values of the organization clearly in focus.
Part of what makes this friction healthy is the accountability it sustains. This friction
keeps the executives accountable to the board, the board members accountable to one another, and the organization accountable to the community as a whole.
7. A candidate doesn’t have to be asked ahead of time if they would be willing to serve.
Consider the difference between picking a team from a playground line-up versus a secret ballot. Some nonprofits want to first ask board nominees if they would be willing to serve before being placed on their list. If the nominee is ultimately not selected, this can sometimes lead to feelings of rejection or harboring ill will toward the organization itself.
In contrast, other nonprofits instead do not ask first. The nominee does not even know they are being considered and thus cannot get disappointed if they are not selected picked.
In the anonymous process, a prioritized list is created from the names collected throughout the year. The list should have preferred candidates at the top along with a secondary list of qualified alternates. Only after the list is created should the nominating committee approach the prioritized nominees.
As aforementioned, the nominee might not be personally known. Even so, they may be the ideal person whom the nominating committee feels most closely fits the need.
Sometimes, the most desired candidates will say no to service. However, the prioritized list makes recourse simple: if a candidate declines, the Committee merely goes to the next alternate on their list. After securing the nominees needed, the remaining alternates on the list are unaware of their position and, again, do not feel slighted they were not asked to serve. They then can remain on the list until the time a position becomes available.
Great Effort but Greater Reward
With so much attention on the lack of inclusion and diversity on many boards of directors, if a nominating committee is doing its job correctly, the right people will have a seat at the table. Ultimately, the nominating committee and the nominating process should be neither minimized nor thought to be of little importance. The process for nominating board members should not be left to one quick meeting right before the end of the fiscal year. It should be deliberate and strategic. The question of replacing board members should never be a simple matter of easiest available options. In fact, as long as you have a sufficient number of board members to meet the requirements of your bylaws, it’s probably better to leave a board seat vacant until you find just the right person rather than fill it with someone who you suspect may not serve your organization well.
Of course, it must be recognized that we are talking about the inexact science of people and human behavior. However, if your nominating committee is having a very difficult time making their selections, they just may be doing the job right. Your organization is strongest when the nominating process is a prioritized activity, the board and the staff are actively collaborating, and the committee conducts its role correctly.
And, at the end of the day, a well-chosen board will hopefully give the organization’s executives and staff no reason to complain.
Rand E. Morgan is the President and CEO of Weld Community Foundation in Greeley, Colorado.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.
Pauline Cotton says
Would you be willing to let me see the application that you had to fill out so I can check the breadth and depth of the questions? idle breakout
Lloyd Gardner says
Thanks for this thoughtful and useful article. The nonprofit that I currently lead had principles, practices, and forms that were formalized as board policy in 2021. That brought consistency to the recruitment process, but did not immediately resolve problems with board recruitment. One problem is that the board is small and, as with most boards, some members do not like recruiting. It does not help that the new guidelines recognizes the reality that recruitment is an active, ongoing process. A recent board self-assessment exercise reminded directors that recruitment is part of their fiduciary duties, so that task is being addressed as individual and board responsibility.
The organization also has mechanisms that should function as pipelines for future board members (e.g. committees, associates, stakeholder engagement processes), but making them effective for recruiting is a work in progress.
Edythe Bronston, President & Founder, California Jazz Foundation says
This is a really valuable article. We (the California Jazz Foundation) are a small nonprofit, almost 17 years old, helping California jazz musicians in need. We have a wonderful and well-rounded Board of Directors, the members of which are diverse in virtually all categories … we even all like each other, although we do have healthy arguments! While we don’t have an official Nominating Committee, all board members, many past board members, and some Advisory Board members, participate in the process throughout the year.
One ongoing problem, however, is our failure to take advantage of our Advisory Board. I’d love to see input on that issue!
Michael Burns says
These points are poignant and reasonable. I do have one quibble that is specifically structural. I would offer that a Governance Committee is a reasonable location for the recruiting and all that follows duties. As a standing committee with every responsibility focused on the care and feeding of the board, getting the optimal people “on the bus” falls with the committee’s realm. No need keeping alive another committee with the singular task of recruiting and vetting. I believe that the fewer standing committees, the healthier the board.
Denice Hinden says
I appreciate this article’s thoughtful suggestions. I am currently participating in a recruitment process where I am a candidate. What I like about process is the organization put out a broad public call with a link to a detailed description of their requirements and a digital application to complete. I understand from the beginning that I may not be selected so I can manage my own experience. In other words I see disappointment as a choice I do not have to feel if I am truly focused on the organization making the best decision for their needs and the choices they have. And I can look for other opportunities too. I also see the application as a way to make the organization aware of my interest, which could open future opportunities.
Pam McCarthy says
Hello Denice — Are you willing to share the application that you were asked to complete so I can review the depth and breadth of the questions. My email is email@example.com and I am the chair of the Governance & Nominations Committee at a non profit in San Mateo county in CA. Thank you in advance. Regards, Pam McCarthy
I was also looking at the public application method for board recruitment. I see your comment was a while ago but if you happen to come across the application and description, would you mind emailing me a copy as well? firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you