Highlighting the personal and professional benefits of serving on your nonprofit’s board can help you make the role more appealing to younger candidates.
Let me share a story: when I was a senior in high school, the only other candidate for the presidency of our church group was someone who was…well…difficult. My friends convinced me to run; I agreed—and won. For the next year, I planned projects, met people, ran meetings, created events, and worked hard on teams. It was a whirlwind, and most of the time I was smiling. This profound experience revealed a fundamental truth about nonprofit service: it was fun. It lit a neuron in my brain that felt great and led to decades of service on several boards. I believe that this episode demonstrates the strength of the pleasure principle. Let’s talk about how you can use it to recruit board directors.
But first—what is the pleasure principle?
More than a century ago, Freud explicitly recognized that humans inherently seek pleasure and avoid pain. Based on my experiences as a college student, this is perhaps not a very surprising conclusion—but a conclusion supported by science, nonetheless.
Of course, this human characteristic sometimes gets us into trouble, but it can also act as a powerful motivator. And as we present a new generation with the possibilities of nonprofit board membership, it is crucial to tap into this principle’s universality.
Selling Pleasure, Not Boring Meetings
When a board opportunity is presented to a candidate, it is often framed as a sales “ask.” Basically, you’re saying to a candidate: we represent a worthy organization, and we are asking you to contribute your time, treasure, and talent to help us.
Anyone hearing that request—especially a busy, younger person who is perhaps unfamiliar with board service— will automatically raise their defense shields. They’ll tell you: “I do not have time/skills for this,” or perhaps “I really hate meetings.” If they’re feeling particularly candid, they might even say, “I am not interested in spending my free time with people who are my parents’ age.”
But this line of reasoning can easily drift into an unproductive conversation, which overlooks the fact that nonprofit board service can be enormously entertaining. That is, you’ll spend your time trying to convince the potential candidate that their fears are unfounded instead of focusing on the positive aspects of board service.
So the next time that you are recruiting a board candidate, take the conversation in a different direction. Show them what they’re getting out of board service, not what it’s going to cost them.
The Five Pleasures of Board Service
From my time on boards, I’ve identified five topics which you can raise with board recruits to show how their service will make them smile. Remember to use these to demonstrate to potential candidates—especially younger generations—what they will get out of serving on a nonprofit board. Feel free to add your opinions on other enjoyable topics in the comment section below!
1. They will become a subject matter expert.
In your sales pitch, highlight that joining your nonprofit’s board will provide the candidate with the opportunity to either learn about a subject that they do not understand or deepen their existing subject matter expertise. Of course, the exact phrasing of this will depend on the candidate’s background. Make sure you research the candidate so that you know where they’re coming from—and how to pitch accordingly.
After I left a job providing legal services to a government social service agency, I was asked to serve on the board of a private social service agency. I already knew about the legal background for these services, but this board seat provided a much broader view into this field while also allowing me to use subject matter talents that otherwise would have gone dormant.
Even if your potential candidate already works within the field, your nonprofit will afford them a different viewpoint, ultimately deepening their understanding of the subject matter.
2. Serving is learning.
This is related to—but importantly also an expansion of—the previous point. You want to make sure that your pitch emphasizes how every aspect of board service teaches valuable skills. This becomes particularly important for those who have not previously served on a board.
During my time on nonprofit boards, I learned how to run meetings. I observed other board members negotiate positions with each other as well as staff regarding mission and strategy. I gained insights into fundraising techniques, event planning, budgeting with unpredictable sources of income, media relations, marketing, and legislative lobbying. I participated in short- and long-term strategic plans as well as emergency responses. I experienced the challenge of hiring and, yes, firing executive directors. Each instance taught me something new.
Present board service as a learning laboratory rather than a chore, supported by any examples from your experience. For example, if certain board members or staff have exceptional public speaking skills, are wildly successful when they solicit donations, or are masterful in the art of legislative lobbying, highlight how much you have learned from watching them work. You can talk about the lessons you’ve learned watching a complicated event move from idea to a success—after all, some event planners have this down to a science! Make sure you emphasize the sheer amount of knowledge (institutional and otherwise) that they’ll have access to through service on your organization’s board. All they have to do is say, “Yes!”
3. A network is waiting to welcome you.
During your recruiting meetings, list all the remarkable people (on your board and beyond) who will become your candidates’ colleagues. As board members, they’ll have the chance to attend some fantastic events at unusual venues with organization members or donors who they do not know—and, without your directorship, they would never get to know. If you can point to famous or important people who the candidate will hang out with, so much the better. If you throw a terrific party, brag about it.
Now, you might have read those last two sentences and said, “Wait just a minute. Am I really supposed to name-drop all the cool people my org works with? What is this, high school?”
And that’s not an unfair concern. In fact, it might be better to think through what you know about the candidate and come up with a handful of potential matches, even testing the waters during the pitch to see which names get them to bite. However, everyone wants to hang out with cool people—and that desire can be used to press those pleasure principle buttons.
4. Join an exceptional club.
Becoming a part of a community dedicated to serving a cause develops strong bonds. These bonds can do much more than just expand a LinkedIn network; they can create friendships.
Of course, friends are valuable because friends help each other. But more importantly, friendships—especially those formed in adulthood—make life more enjoyable and are an integral part of living a fulfilling life.
The best way to find new friends is to find people with similar interests. And all your board members have one thing in common: they want to work together to achieve a common goal in your community.
Obviously, you can’t promise your recruit that they are sure to find a new best friend on your board, but you can point out that this service provides many opportunities for them to get to know other board members in informal settings. And if you can tell a story about strong friendships that you have developed through your nonprofit work, make sure to share that story.
5. Scratch the altruistic itch.
Like many nonprofit board members, I worked for a paycheck—not my passion—for most of my career. This is not to say that I did not enjoy my work. However, nonprofit board membership provided an additional sense of fulfillment, allowing me to use my talents for something beyond corporate or personal profit.
Granted, not every board meeting or activity was exhilarating. Let’s be clear: board service can often test one’s patience. But most of the time when you reflect on your accomplishments, you feel good that you are working towards a better community.
In your pitch to potential candidates, be explicit about how board service can be a source of pride. It’s even better if you can get board members—especially the board chair— to share their stories and positive experiences serving at your nonprofit. Have current board members speak to specific accomplishments that gave them a sense of satisfaction about their contribution. Not only will this help you attract potential candidates, but it will also remind current board members why they serve, strengthening their connection to your nonprofit.
Remember the board member’s mantra: I participate in my community, therefore I am.
Mahatma Gandhi said that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Without a sense of yourself, happiness is a rare commodity. While you do not need to quote Gandhi as a part of your recruiting speech, make sure to emphasize how good it feels to serve. Acknowledge that while you are asking the candidate to share their time, talent, and treasure, you have something—actually so many things (at least five)—to offer in exchange.
Persuading candidates to join your board can take advantage of the pleasure principle by portraying nonprofit service as an enjoyable and fulfilling experience. So go out there. Ignite that spark of joy in your recruits. Inspire them to embark on a rewarding journey of service and personal growth.
He has served on the boards of several Delaware nonprofits. He currently chairs the Board of the Todmorden Foundation and the Todmorden East Foundation, which operate the low-income housing units in Wilmington. He is also the treasurer of Delaware Pacem in Terris, Inc and vice chair of the Delaware chapter of the American Constitution Society.
He lives in Wilmington, Delaware.
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